Free higher education is a rallying cry for students, but analysts are concerned it could compromise the economy.
Cape Town - Free higher education could be President Jacob Zuma’s lasting legacy before he bows out of office, but analysts warned that a reckless show of generosity would further damage the economy.

They said Zuma was likely to buckle under pressure from students who made the “loudest noises” and he would use the opportunity to endear himself as the president who had delivered free tertiary education.

Violent student protests over free higher education brought the country to a standstill in 2015. Zuma appointed a commission of inquiry to investigate its feasibility last year.

The commission, chaired by Judge Arthur Heher, handed its report to Zuma in August, but he is yet to publicise it.

Earlier this month, Zuma told Parliament the release of Heher’s report was imminent.

With speculation rife about the report’s contents, many believe Zuma will appease the students.

“Free education would definitely paint the president in a positive light. It would be good for Zuma and his legacy. Then again, it would have to come from government coffers,” said political analyst Dr Bheki Mngomezulu.

“As it stands, our country is not performing well. From a practical point of view, we cannot afford it now.”

Another political analyst, Daniel Silke, said a decision to offer free tertiary education could also hurt Zuma’s legacy.

“Some will applaud the decision but others may see it as a potentially reckless decision in an already suffering economy,” he said.

Economist Dawie Roodt said reports that free education could soon be a reality were concerning because there was no clear plan about where the funds would come from.

He said it seemed to be a case of the government giving in to those who made the loudest noise.

“In this case, it’s the students. Free education is a political decision which will do damage to our country. It’s all fair and well to have free education but how would we afford it? It means we would have to spend less on something else, increase taxes or borrow money. All three of these options would not work,” said Roodt.

He said borrowing money would be difficult, considering the tax-collection shortfall of R50.8billion which South Africa already faced.

“We are already sitting with debt that is way too high. We can borrow money, but due to us already overspending, that would be a detrimental move. If we increased taxes, our economy is going to be burdened even further and we are going to end up with a very angry nation,” said Roodt.

Economics professor Bonke Dumisa said he loved the idea of free tertiary education for all, but even some of the wealthiest countries in the world, such as the US, could not afford it.

The director of the Independent Institution of Education, one of the biggest players in private tertiary education circles, Dr Felicity Coughlan, said it had told the Heher Commission free tertiary education was not feasible, given the country’s economic state.

“Although we don’t think the free education policy will have any impact on us, it is our view that there should be a scale used to measure its implementation.

“We believe the National Student Financial Aid Scheme is too low. But this does not advocate for free education; perhaps in future, but not when the economy is not progressive,” she said.

Coughlan said, should it be given a green light, the beneficiaries of fee-free tertiary education should be required to pay at least some of the money back so that it could be “recycled” to assist others in need.

She said she was disappointed that, after the report had been completed in September, it had not been released because it could now cause instability if it did not meet students’ expectations.

“It should have been released before exams began so that they could prepare for the new year. We are also concerned about the impact if released in the middle of the exams. It is going to be disruptive,” she said.

Professor Henriette Hay-Swemmer of private education provider Educor said she was excited about the possibilities created for private higher education providers if free education became a reality.

“Free higher education will inevitably lead to drops in standards, overcrowded classrooms, higher drop-out rates and less personalised learning for our students. This is where affordable private higher education institutions can play a pivotal role,” said Hay-Swemmer.

She said private higher education could provide personalised high-quality higher education that was authentic and developed critical graduate attributes society required.

Social media was abuzz this week, with those in support of free education saying it was necessary for the country’s growth, while others doubted the quality of qualifications it would produce and questioned the political motives at play.

Presidency spokesperson Dr Bongani Ngqulunga said the report was being studied by the Interministerial Committee for Higher Education, chaired by Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe, working with the presidential fiscal committee.

“There has been no decision on when the report on the funding for higher education will be released,” he said.

Weekend Argus