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Free high education won't benefit 'elite'

By Bongani Nkosi | 2016-10-25 11:17:02.0

Popular argument by some politicians and academics that free tertiary education would benefit the rich at the expense of the poor has been debunked by a report compiled by parliament's officials.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has also of late emerged as a proponent of the argument. He recently told the commission set up by President Jacob Zuma to look into the feasibility of fee-free higher education that the government would not make varsity education free for all.

"You'd be asking the poor to subsidise the rich, if you ask [for] everybody including the rich to be paid for by government," Nzimande told the commission.

"We're a highly unequal society. Those who can afford to pay must pay and those who are rich and wealthy must also pay," he added.

A number of academics have advanced the same argument before the commission, which is expected to report back to Zuma in July.

In his submission, Dr Nico Cloete, director of the Centre for Higher Education Trust, said free education for all was regressive.

"Free higher education will advantage [the elite group] even more," he said.

Against the backdrop of calls by #FeesMustFall protesters that free education should become a policy that caters for everyone however, a report by Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has challenged this argument.

"A response to this argument would be to question whether most of the students who are broad-brushed with the label elite are actually elite," said the report, which was submitted to the National Council of Provinces' standing committee on appropriations last week.

"Since income inequality and unemployment is so high in South Africa, there has been a tendency to label relatively poor people as middle class or 'black diamonds' and to label workers in the formal sector as labour aristocracy (elite)."

It said the percentage of elite households in the country was evidently insignificant. The wealthiest 10% of the population own about 95% of all wealth.

This was while 40% of the population - the group that is often considered to be the middle class - owns only about 5% of all wealth. The poorest 50% of the population owns no measurable wealth, said the report.

"Therefore, the argument that free higher education would benefit the elite may lack substance given South Africa's unique situation with regard to wealth and income inequality," it said.

"Black tax" and employment uncertainty comes into play in the PBO's report.

"In essence, there is high dependency ratio on employed people in South Africa.

"The precariousness of employment makes planning and investing in higher education and other activities more difficult for households, even households that may be within the top quintile by income."

It also decried exclusion of many from tertiary education.

"Two decades since the end of apartheid, the South African higher education system is still inaccessible to the wider population."