I arrive at the gates of a quiet apartment in Grassy Park, a suburb in the Cape Flats. Waseem Taylor comes out to greet me in a baggy t-shirt. He’s just got out of bed, he explains to me, as I duck my head into his family home. His younger sister is off school sick today, watching television, while his older sister cooks breakfast in the kitchen area a couple of metres away. Their mother also lives here. It’s a tight space.
It may be his off-day, but Waseem, 18, certainly isn’t slacking. ‘Sport is my passion’, he says. ‘I’m planning on coaching when I’m finished with my soccer, or becoming an agent.’ He studies Sports Management and Development at Varsity College in Cape Town. He is the first in his family to graduate from high-school, and the first to go on to further studies.
His annual tuition fees are R58,000. I ask if he can afford it. ‘Not at all… most of the people I know who went to school with me don’t have the funds to go study further, so maybe they’ll apply for a bursary but won’t get it.’ His parents can’t afford to help him out either.
Access to higher education has become a political battleground in recent years. Only last year a report by the University of Stellenbosch concluded that tuition fees had risen unsustainably in the last decade, even after inflation. It found that the cost of a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree at the institution had risen 30% in real terms since 2006. University education was in fact more affordable during the apartheid years.
In a country still burdened with the legacy of that regime (whites still earn five times as much as blacks), affordability has become as much a race issue as a class one. At the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa’s most reputable university, only a quarter of students are black . The Department for Higher Education published a report last year detailing a staggering 47.9% drop-out rate amongst South African students, the vast majority of whom were black. Most of them left due to financial pressures.
I raise this with Waseem. ‘They [non-whites] don’t have the money. So they might get the marks, and when they go to the tertiary institutions, they might get a bursary or scholarship. But if they don’t then they won’t get into college because of the money.’ As a ‘coloured’, he is in the minority at white-dominated Varsity College.
Fortunately he lives at home, and drives to campus and training in his own car. One of his friends, however, comes from Knysna, 500km east of Cape Town. He has to rent an apartment in Rondebosch, adding to his study costs. Others are forced to go to further extremes. At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, some undergraduates sleep on campus with no accommodation, and go hungry because they can’t afford basic living expenses. It’s no wonder then that university education, even for those with the merit, is still out of reach for many poorer – and demonstrably non-white – South Africans.
As a consequence, student protests (the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1970s) are on the rise. In 2015, the defiling of Cecil Rhodes’ campus statue ignited a politically charged nation-wide protest movement against ‘institutional white supremacist capitalist patriarchy’, according to the #RhodesMustFall Facebook page. A year after came #FeesMustFall, a movement aimed at achieving free and universal tertiary education.
What started as a peaceful protest quickly erupted. In September, 32 students were arrested at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal after the library was set alight. Fires burned outside the Union Buildings in Pretoria a month later. Students clashed with policemen outside Parliament. ‘It was very disruptive’ says Waseem. ‘When that [student protest] was going on, campus had to stop – so there was no learning taking place. People were out of college, and that affected them.’ The ‘Born-Free’ generation had grown claws – and were willing to use them.
The protests betrayed anger not just at tuition fees but at broader government failings to address the iniquities of the post-apartheid era. ‘Education is supposed to be the main subject [of government policy] in South Africa, because there’s such little job creation’, argues Waseem. Today’s globalised, competitive market has made a university education more important than ever. ‘With a matric pass, it’s very hard to find a job. You must have connections. Nowadays, it’s more about qualification than experience.’ A whopping 65% of high-school graduates are unemployed. Most of his friends, he says, ‘are just sitting at home doing nothing’. It seems that the seeds of frustration among young people are only just beginning to bear.
Rhetorically, there now seems little doubt that the ruling ANC is committed to advancing higher education. Blade Nzimande, the Minister for Higher Education and Training, demonstrated this in a speech to ministers last year. ‘Government remains firmly committed to progressively realise free post-school education for the poor and working class, as called for by our Constitution, and to assist middle-class families who are unable to pay.’ His department received an 18% spending increase for the 2016/17 period, with further increases planned. Later the former Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, allocated an extra R5bn to the budget on top of the R32bn previously allocated.
A platter of committees and enquiries has now been instigated: the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training; the Presidential Task Team on the Funding Challenges at Universities; the Heher Commission; to name a few. Let’s not forget the ANC’s stated ambition to get an extra half a million students into higher education by 2030. Petitions or petrol bombs, ears are turning.
At the frontline in providing opportunities for the poorest to attend university or college, the National Student Funding Aid Scheme (NSFAS) offers loans to students whose combined family income falls below R600,000, based on means testing and academic merit. It currently supports 405,000 students in higher education (40% of all enrolled students), and has seen R4.5bn of extra funding in the past year. Bursaries are also supported. ‘Most students at TVET colleges automatically qualify for bursaries’, according to Kagisho Mamabolo, spokesperson at the NSFAS.
This support has certainly improved the demographics of public institutions. Black enrolment rates increased by 34% between 2008 and 2013. But participation rates are deceptive – the rate of completion for degrees of all levels remains poor, particularly among the black and coloured population.
Black enrolment rates increased by 34% between 2008 and 2013. But participation rates are deceptive – the rate of completion for degrees of all levels remains poor, particularly among the black and coloured population.
This is partly because loans are charged with interest, and many cannot afford to repay their debt after their first year. Since 2015 the NSFAS has managed to reclaim a poultry R8.5m in loan repayments. Even graduates fail to meet the salary threshold – R30,000 a year – to start repaying. Without the job market to receive new graduates, they’re being left out to dry. In the meantime, their debt grows larger and larger.
I raise this with Mr Mamabolo. The government are troubled by the issue of completion rates and are trying to find ways to sustain funding throughout a student’s course. To help students finish their course, he says, ‘students… can receive bursaries for their final year as part of the Final Year Programme – a special funding programme that was launched by the President in 2011.’
What does this mean for people like Waseem? Unfortunately the spectre of apartheid racial classification still lingers. While funding measures are no doubt in place, for political reasons emphasis is on the black population. As a coloured, during democracy as during apartheid, Waseem has been caught in the middle. Coloured participation rates have been consistently lower as a proportion of the population, with only an 18% increase in the period 2008–2013, nearly half the 34% figure for blacks. If coloured incomes are higher (according to the 2011 Census) why has tertiary education become more of a struggle to achieve?
Part of the answer lies in the phenomenon of the ‘missing middle’, a phrase coined to describe an income bracket, but which also provides a reminder of the racial structure which still exists. This bracket of people earns too much to qualify for financial aid under the NSFAS, but not enough to pay for higher education. In the short-term, relief has been provided for this middle-class, protecting them from the fee increases scheduled for 2017/18.
The long-term solution will require progressive reform and the cooperation of not just government, but private initiatives as well. It doesn’t help, of course, that the ANC political elite has a tarnished reputation of corruption and financial mismanagement, going right to the top. Or that the government’s fiscal situation is already tightly squeezed by the rise in unemployment figures and social security hand-outs. Or that there is no appetite in government for tax rises. But there is recognition that this is everyone’s problem.
Varsity College is run by the Independent Institute of Education, a subsidiary of ADvTECH Group Limited, and runs its own aid scheme for disadvantaged students. Waseem received a scholarship from Varsity worth R10,000 for his efforts in sport at high school and voluntary work. He also intends to apply for sports bursary awards.
Personal efforts count as well. Albert Radford, a student from the UK, is volunteering in South Africa with Projects Abroad. ‘The lady who volunteers for the charity introduced me to her son, Waseem, who was working in the kitchen which provides free food to the community.’ On hearing about Waseem’s remaining R48,000 deficit, Albert decided to help him raise whatever he needed.
‘If you can’t be a government that provides access to clean water in the townships… then how are you going to guarantee people free university education? You’ve got to start from the bottom. That’s why I think it’s going to take a long time.’
Albert will be studying at Leiden University in the Netherlands, where tuition fees are paid for entirely by the public purse. Coming here has exposed him to the array of issues confronting the state, of which higher education is but one: ‘If you can’t be a government that provides access to clean water in the townships… then how are you going to guarantee people free university education? You’ve got to start from the bottom. That’s why I think it’s going to take a long time.’ But he believes higher taxation, particularly on the wealthiest, would be a welcome first step: ‘generally, I think, as a high-earning individual you have a responsibility to the society that you live in, to give back.’
He is organising a fundraising page and has already received donations worth R4,000. ‘I’m making contact with private individuals.’ He’s also going to ask charitable organisations for help, including Projects Abroad. Simply put, Waseem would not have the chance to pursue his course without these private initiatives. But that won’t be enough for a consistent, nation-wide policy framework to emerge.
The benefits of higher education are visible for all to see. For the government, it is now a matter of execution rather than intention. Waseem is certainly hopeful for the future. ‘I think my career will prosper… if the government can look into education and fund it more, then we can get more jobs for other people.’ The multiplier effect could lift the economy, and public finances, out of the red. He didn’t need an economics degree to work that out.
The struggle for access to higher education reflects the struggle for racial equality which has proven so dogged an inheritance for South Africa as a whole. The process will take time, and has to recognise and accommodate for South Africa’s unique history. Today’s generation, born free of oppression and free of inhibition, expect more than their forefathers. It will be the ANC’s greatest challenge to live up to these new and higher expectations.
Oliver was inspired to travel to South Africa on his gap year and see more of the world. He enjoys meeting new and interesting people with funny accents. He also enjoys reading and writing, particularly about history, which he starts studying next year.
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