University Protests for Free Tertiary Education, South Africa, & Why Free Tertiary Education is Impossible.

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Image Credit: Face2Face Africa. Clashes between students and police.

One of the motivations underpinning the widespread 2016 students protests at many of South Africa’s top universities was because students believed that they have been promised the right to free higher education. No doubt the significant levels of poverty, unemployment, and the resultant lack of access to not only good basic education but also tertiary education is what has fueled much of these protests. Due to the mass student protests and clashes with police, often violent and destructive in nature, many universities were shut down with the government bodies citing security and safety risks and threats to their students and property.

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Image Credit: CNN, Baloyi & Isaacs.

Many of the protesting students had formed movements to protest against a 10% university fee increase (which was eventually capped at 6%). Nonetheless, the students were still majorly dissatisfied, and they not only continued to protest against any increase but they also campaigned to make tertiary education free for all. A leader in this movement SASCO, The South African Students Congress, “notes with utter disgust, dismay and distaste the abhorrent acts of drastically increasing fees by Vice-Chancellors and Councils. We believe that this is an attempt to create our institutions as exclusive spaces, with money as a main entry ticket” (1). These are the sad concerns shared by millions of impoverished Black and Coloured South Africans who will never have the opportunity to attend a university or any higher education institution.

However, this notion presented by SASCO and those demonstrating within the movement, is quite misplaced. The fact of the matter is that the government has never promised free higher education to anyone. The government has, however, promised free basic education. According to the South African Constitution, “Everybody has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible” (2). It is quite clearly stipulated here that basic education is a right although higher education, the attending of a university, is a privilege.

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Image Credit: Common Good. Students gathering in mass, University of Cape Town.

But let’s consider this further and ask some questions. Is free higher education even a good idea? And could it work in a South African context? Well, no and no. Let us first consider why the idea of free higher education is a bad idea, generally speaking.

Firstly, universities, by their very nature, are selective. This means that they choose some applicants over others, and they usually do so given academic excellence and achievement. No-one just walks in through the front door and occupies a study desk. A fair number of students who obtain their degree will become scholars in their fields, and perhaps even some of the leading scholars in the world. However, no-one just has the right to become a scholar. To become a scholar, one who is regarded as an expert and authority in his or her field, is earned, not given. Nico Cloete, the Extraordinary Professor at the University of the Western Cape, observes that less than 5% of poor South Africans qualify for entry into universities (3). As harsh as it seems, and as much as it saddens me to say this because of myself being a product of White privilege, it is just the sad reality that the majority of people who can’t access higher education just don’t deserve to go to university. To therefore open university doors to poorer students, most of whom don’t deserve a position at the institution, is simply not going to fix the problem.

Moreover, as has been noted before, the notion of free higher education spawns entitlement (4). Again, achieving a degree is earned, and no-one deserves it. There should also be a significant concern about simply handing out free degrees. The more people in the country that have a certain degree the less the value of that degree. A degree is valuable because it is earned, and companies and businesses want to employ graduates who deserve to be employed. Further, where does it stop? If people can access free tertiary education when will they begin demanding that universities lower the pass grades? If so, higher education in this country would become an embarrassment. Thus, generally speaking, this in practice will never work. But what about the possibility of it within a South African context?

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Image Credit: News.CN. Students demonstrating in Pretoria outside of the Union Buildings.

The obvious problem here is that South Africa is a third world country. And normally in third world countries there isn’t a surplus of funds to go around. Nonetheless, as some within the student protests have argued, a proponent will point to alleged countries in the world in which free higher education is not only possible but actually working. The argument is usually that “the super-rich can pay” for free tertiary education for all. However, this is woefully misplaced; according to Cloete, “Nowhere in the world do the super-rich pay for free higher education. In the Nordic countries with quality free higher education the money comes from a combination of being some of them most equal societies in the world, unemployment being less than 5% and the tax rate is a flat 50% for everybody” (5).

The reason that free higher education is possible in these few countries is because everybody there has a job, earn good salaries, pay high taxes, and are contributive members to their economies. South Africa is certainly not now, nor will it ever be, close to anything like that. Even if we take all the money from the few rich South Africans that there currently are, it will only sponsor students loans for a few years. According to Dr. Chimwechiyi Ndoziya, a researcher at the Da Vinci Institute in Johannesburg, “Even in Europe where you have the most developed countries, they are still struggling to have free education for all and we are a third world country, so it will not be easy for us, it is extremely difficult” (6).

Education isn’t the only issue confronting a country like South Africa given that funds need to be allocated to combatting poverty, unemployment, and inequality. This is not to mention the cost of running an entire country involves investing huge sums in energy, roads, ports, public transport, bulk water and sanitation, hospitals, basic and all the education infrastructure (7). Ndoziya thus explains that “It is not possible to have free education simply because there are a lot of things that compete for the same resources, there is no way that you can have free education” (8). This would explain why the government’s investments are actually quite low, globally speaking, in terms of tertiary funding (9). The South African budget for universities as a percentage of GDP is roughly 0.75%. This is lower than the Africa-wide average of 0.78% and the global proportion is 0.84%. For some first world countries such as Germany, Finland, and Australia that proportion sits at 1.21%. Our country just doesn’t have the money to make possible what the protesting students are demanding.

Free higher education is not only a bad idea generally speaking, but it is also not possible in a country like South Africa.


1. Polity. 2015. SASCO: Education is not a privilege, it’s a right #FeesMustFall. Available.

2. The Constitution of South Africa. Available.

3. Cloete, N. 2016. Free higher education? Why it’s not possible in SA. Brilliant analysis! Available.

4. Maserumule, M. 2016. Why the notion of free higher education in South Africa is misplaced. Available.

5. Cloete, N. 2016. Student fees, the petite bourgeoisie and the Treasury. Available.

6. Mlambo, S. 2016. SA cannot afford free education. Available.

7. South African Government. National Infrastructure Plan. Available

8. Mlambo, S. 2016. Ibid.

9. Bloch, G. 2015. Free education is a worthy goal, but South Africa isn’t ready for it yet. Available.


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