FREE AT LAST?

Price (and who should pay) is the dilemma facing leaders in higher education in South Africa

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A word – this can be defined as ‘a single distinct meaningful element of speech or writing, used with others, or sometimes alone, to form a sentence and typically shown with a space on either side when written or printed’. It is amazing just how much power a word or a collection of words can have. Put together, some words have the power to upset people, groups or even nations and turn their worlds up side down, often with dire and regrettable consequences. Take, for instance, the following collection of words:

“We have looked at the challenges at hand from all sides and have concluded that the best approach would be to allow universities individually to determine the increases their institutions will require. With the caution that this has to also take into account affordability of students, and therefore has to be transparent, reasonable and related to inflation-linked adjustments, our recommendation is that the fee adjustments should not go above 8%. The government will assist households with an income of up to R600 000 per annum”.

Within a few hours of these words being said on Monday the 19th of September 2016, by the South African Minister of Higher Education – Mr. Blade Nzimande - emotions of anger were triggered within the tertiary student community. Students gathered on their campuses’ grounds in numbers, engulfed with disgust to lament the Minister’s words.

One may recall that in the last quarter of 2015, the #feesmustfall protest took South Africa. After the Minister announced an increase in fees for 2016, students went on a rampage.

They boycotted classes, barricaded the entrances to their institutions, clashed with the police, destroyed property. Some of them even managed to get themselves arrested. The situation was rescued by the Minister, who later announced that there would be no fee increases in public tertiary institutions in 2015.

Hardly a year later, we’re back to where we were. The Minister has announced that universities and other public institutions that provide tertiary education may increase fees by up to 8%. Once again, chaos of massive proportions has erupted. This week has seen numerous public protests in many universities in the country.

At the University of Witwatersrand, students gathered to discuss the announcement. This was followed by a complete shutdown of the University. Other universities, such as the University of the Free State and the University of Cape Town, also embarked on a complete shutdown. Just like they did last year, the students’ protests led to the destruction of property and the arrest of many.

The announcement of the increment of fees by the Minister is a repeat of the one he made in 2015 - with one exception. This time, the Minister decided to include an element of parents’ financial ability in the equation. This got students ‘double angry’. First, they argued that the message they were sending out to the Minister was one that stated that they want no fee increases at all.

“From the beginning of our protests, we were clear that we do not want any increase. The fee increment is our main issue,” said SRC Deputy President Sunshine Myende.

The second element in the Minister’s announcement that got students angrier was the introduction of the financial factor into the fees increase matter. Many students—and, indeed, parents—found this disturbing and inconsiderate. Wits SRC Deputy President Motheo Brody summed up many students’ position on the matter, when he said “Nzimande’s suggestion is not acceptable”.

The view by government that parents whose joint income exceed R600 000 per annum, must pay full fees from their pockets (while those who earn less would realise subsidies for their children’s tertiary education) sparked an interesting national debate, with some people supporting the view and others opposing it with all their might.

Those who support the view are of the opinion that the rich keep on getting richer and richer and the poor are becoming poorer and poorer. Their understanding is that the rich must, therefore, pay their way through education with no assistance at all from government. They are seen as being self–sufficient and not in need of help.

On the other hand, those who are challenging the Minister hold the view that a family that earns a joint income of R600 000 per annum cannot be classified as well-off. Neither can a family that earns a joint income of R1 000 000. They argue that wealth is a relative concept, which is linked to income vs. lifestyle vs. expenditure. Consider this scenario of two families:

Family A has a combined annual salary of R1 000 000 per annum. They have 4 children that are all studying in private educational institutions. They live in the suburbs and have a mortgaged house. They pay high municipal rates and taxes based on the size of their house. Because the area that they live in is not serviced by public transport, they need to have cars, which they need to purchase through hire purchase and for which they must pay monthly installments. The parents are self–employed and so they do not have medical aid benefits that they would have from their employer, if they had been employed. Over and above all that, their R1 000 000 per annum income is reduced significantly by the taxman, as they are in a high tax bracket.

By contrast, family B earns a combined annual salary of R590 000. They live in an older suburb and their 4 children enjoy free education in public schools. Their suburb is serviced by public transport offered by their local municipality and so they do not need to have cars that would require to be repaid through an installment on a monthly basis, for three to five years. Their house is either fully paid for or they get a housing subsidy as they work for government. They pay no levies on their properties. They enjoy lower premiums on their medical aid, as they work for the public sector and are on the GEMS medical scheme. They pay relatively lower, or no income tax at all.

These families both have 18-year-old children, who each passes matric with flying colours and gets accepted to study at the same university. In their applications to enter into university, both children also submitted applications for financial assistance. The child from family A is denied the bursary and the child from family B gets a bursary that is funded in full or in part by government.

Where is the fairness in all of this? Who pays the taxes that government needs to advance our country? I fully understand that there are families that genuinely need financial assistance to study in tertiary institutions. I was one of those students. When I passed matric, my mother was a housewife and my father was a labourer at a tyre manufacturing company. I managed to go through university with a TEFSA (now NFSAS) loan which I had to repay for many years after graduating.

I am just wondering if we should discriminate against those who seem to be earning more, but are left with nothing at the end of the month because they choose to live in more secure and affluent areas and prefer better quality education for their children. Why can we not find another criteria to fund higher education? Why punish those that contribute the most to the receiver of revenue?

With this approach, we may end up pushing the people that earn more than R600 000 per annum to stop paying for taxes. Even worse, we may see self-employed individuals becoming dishonest in their tax submissions. They may start paying themselves annual salaries of less than R600 000 per year and paying their other private expenses from their businesses, and accounting for them as business expenses. All this for the sake of their children benefitting from government subsidised tertiary education.

IS THIS WHAT WE WANT TO SEE?

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