Higher education must be free for all - SAFTU

Federation says report reflects thinking of commission which cannot see beyond limits imposed by a capitalist system

SAFTU stands by its call for free education at all levels

The South African Federation of Trade Unions is angry that the report of the Heher Fees Commission into the feasibility of free education has concluded that fee-free higher education for everyone is not yet feasible in South Africa.

SAFTU stands firm in its demand that free education at all levels, including tertiary, must be free to all who qualify. This is in line with the call in the Freedom Charter that “The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be Opened!” and that “Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children”. 

It is also what the 2007 ANC Policy conference resolved - that “free higher education for the poor up to undergraduate level” must be progressively implemented - and this was reiterated at the Mangaung policy conference.

A country in which all citizens have the chance to a full education is not a utopian dream but an absolute necessity if we are to escape from the chains of a monopoly capitalist system which condemns millions of the poor black majority to poverty, hopelessness and despair and contributes to the epidemic of violent crime, drug abuse and gang warfare.

The report does at least recommend a number of limited reforms, including that:

- government should increase expenditure on higher education and training by 1% of the GDP

- government should develop an affordable plan to fund and develop more student accommodation, prioritising historically disadvantaged institutions

- all students at TVET colleges must be subsidised to cover the full cost of their education

- students with debt who have since graduated should receive income-contingency loans (ICLs) sourced from commercial banks

- all undergraduate public and private university students should be funded through a cost sharing system where the government guarantees ICLs sourced from commercial banks

- application and registration fees must be scrapped.

This however will still leave millions of learners from poor families excluded from the opportunity to study at the tertiary level and achieve the qualifications which are essential for them to enter professions and are becoming increasingly necessary for many other jobs.

This report reflects the thinking of a commission which cannot see beyond the limits imposed by a capitalist system, which has not only failed to reverse the economic and racial inequalities we inherited from apartheid, but, under the watch of successive ANC governments, has made the country even more unequal in terms of both individual incomes and wealth but also in the social wage, which continues to deliver a two-tier level of services based on both class and race, in education in particular.

Finance Minister, Malusi Gigaba, reflecting the pressure from big business and global financial institutions, is already warning of an austerity budget and cuts rather than increases in services like education. 

SAFTU has noted the response to the report by President Zuma. It was on his desk for two months and was only released on 13 November after the Democratic Alliance submitted an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act over the weekend, and the Presidency has given no reason why it has suddenly released it now.

This follows media reports and rumours that the President is interfering in the budgeting process at the National Treasury in a bid to produce an alternative plan to find money for free tertiary education, a plan which contradicts both the Heher report’s recommendation and the Minister’s MTBPS.

The Federation is convinced that even if these reports are true, it does not mean that President Zuma has suddenly been converted to the principled position adopted by SAFTU, student organizations and others, but he is making a desperate attempt to sound more ‘radical’ in order to shore up support for his chosen candidate to replace him as ANC President - Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

It is even reported that his alternative ‘radical’ solution to the problem was written by Morris Masutha, a former president of the SRC at Wits University, and an ex-boyfriend of the President’s and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's daughter Thutukile.

News24 claims to have seen documents, and has individually verified that Masutha worked at the State Security Agency. Sources have indicated he was part of counter-intelligence before he moved to the Union Buildings as a specialist advisor to Jacob Zuma.

SAFTU cannot comment on the details on what at this stage are only media reports, but can be sure that if, as suggested, Zuma is proposing to shift money from other areas of the budget to fund free tertiary education he will only be ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, which could inflict even bigger spending cuts on other crucial areas of the public service than those they would already be likely to suffer in Gigaba’s next budget.

The presidency is said to be running a parallel budgeting process, which would explain why Gigaba said nothing about this proposal for free education in his recent MTBPS. It raises fears that a similar procedure could be used to raise money for the R1-trillion nuclear deal, which the Finance Minister has conceded the country cannot afford.

Michael Sachs, the Treasury's deputy director-general of budgeting, has resigned, allegedly in protest at the way Zuma’s plan has been concocted independently of the Treasury.

SAFTU has always been highly critical of the Treasury which it sees as a bastion of orthodox capitalist thinking and a driver of the country’s neoliberal economic strategy. We cannot however believe that Zuma’s apparent deviation from Treasury procedures is a genuine move towards a more radical or democratic approach, but a reckless bid to make him and his favored candidate sound more radical.

He will be no more able than the Treasury to escape from the chains imposed by credit rating agencies and the whole capitalist system which dictate severe austerity and its in public expenditure and jobs and which will dictate not more but less money for education at all levels.

Zuma appears to believe that the laws of capitalism can simply be sidestepped by fiddling with established procedures. That begs the question of why he did not bring in free tertiary education and other necessary reforms years ago if it is that easy to find the money.

The harsh reality is that the granting of free education at all levels will be impossible without a fundamental and genuine transformation of the economy, which Zuma has consistently refused to do since he became president.

It requires a reversal of the situation where today corporate income tax, paid by companies, has fallen from 54% in the apartheid era of their income to 28% now. That in itself would raise the money for free tertiary education, but will be bitterly opposed by business and their allies in the Treasury. 

There must also be a change in monetary policy to bring back the billions of rands which capitalists have syphoned out of the country in illicit financial outflows of capital into tax havens, and use it to beneficiate our natural resources and rebuild South Africa’s shattered manufacturing industry.

In this way South Africa could raise the resources for free, high-quality, decolonised education from pre-school to tertiary levels, and free, high-quality healthcare, a comprehensive social security system, infrastructure in working class communities, etc., as demanded in the Freedom Charter.

SAFTU also calls for the nationalization of the key industrial monopolies, the banks and the mines, under democratic workers’ control and management, to free the economy from the clutches of a greedy elite of white monopoly capitalists, and use the country’s wealth for the benefit of the people.

The ANC and its alliance partners have once more betrayed the working class, as they have consistent done for the last 23 years.

Statement issued by Zwelinzima Vavi, SAFTU General Secretary, 13 November 2017