The elusive quest for a functional higher education funding mechanism for South Africa: a time to walk the talk

05 Apr 2019

: The South African higher education (HE) sector faces a watershed moment. A key question on most minds is: what is the best way of funding higher education in South Africa? Although relevant stakeholders might have conflicting interests on this matter, the ultimate goal must be to find a mechanism that best responds to South Africa’s developmental realities and aspirations. A marked feature of the SA (and indeed global) HE sector has been increased demand, in excess of supply for HE services. Additionally, there has been increased pressure on the national treasury for competing public goods such as transport energy and healthcare infrastructure. The effect of this has been dwindling state subsidies for HE, which has compelled state-owned higher education institutions to explore alternative sources of funding, notably rising tuition fees and other commercial revenue streams which hitherto were typically associated with private HE providers. The "fees must fall" student unrests which gripped most HEIs in South Africa in 2016 signaled the heightened and growing discontent among students (and by extension, their parents and sponsors) regarding the crippling effects of current HE funding mechanisms in SA. In response to this and related matters, the Fees Commission was set up and delivered its report on 12 November 2017. But before the key findings and recommendations of this report could even be understood, President Jacob Zuma in a knee-jerk reaction seized the occasion of the opening of the 54th conference of the ANC to announce conditional free higher education. Using a thematic analysis of SA’s own experience and selected international experiences and in the context of the envisaged development trajectory for South Africa, this paper argues that major shifts in the psychosocial compact between government and the people are required to find an enduring solution to the current HE funding debacle. More specifically, it offers some recommendations towards attaining such a solution.