The Free Higher Education Social Struggle in South Africa: Is the Nordic Model a Panacea for Developing Countries?

The Free Higher Education Social Struggle in South Africa: Is the Nordic Model a Panacea for Developing Countries?

Since late 2015, the South African government has been under pressure to respond to an unprecedented post-1994 student movement demanding free university education. The initial concession of no fee increases placated university students for a while but during 2016 university fees, dissatisfaction with the government and the fragmentation of the government itself coalesced into a serious threat to Africa’s ‘’best’’ university system. While free higher education has now become part of a much larger societal contestation, a basic question that has not been settled is whether the much quoted (and admired) Nordic free higher education system is appropriate for high inequality developing countries.

In an open seminar '#FeesMustFall: The Free Higher Education Social Struggle in South Africa: Is the Nordic Model a Panacea for Developing Countries?' on 2 February 2017 at the University of Oslo, CHET director, Nico Cloete explored this question of the appropriateness of the Nordic model in the context of contestations about the path to take in South African higher education with respect to student fees.

Dr Jens Jungblut (INCHER, University of Kassel) provided comments in response to Prof. Cloete's presentation.


The presentation

Prof. Cloete's presentation can be downloaded here. Alternatively, watch the presentation below.


Comments by Dr Jungblut

  1. HE is not the silver bullet for all societal problems.
  2. When looking at HE policy and the salience of it, tuition fees are always a hot topic that gets many involved. Interestingly, it seems to be even more salient than debates over increased student support, which could be argued have the same if not a stronger effect on the re-distributive characteristics of HE. So tuition fee debates can easily be very heated and as (higher) education policies are in general “crowd pleasers”, meaning nobody is really against educating people, these debates are often fundamental in nature because they touch the questions of the balance between private and public gains as well as private and public funding responsibilities and through this go to the core of the understanding of what is perceived to be a social just society. This also means that it is difficult to copy paste policy solutions working in one context to another one as the framework conditions will determine in how far the same fee policy will have similar effects on social mobility in two different contexts. For example, compare Germany (low participation in HE, high educational inequality, but low Gini inequality) VET system as alternative with high earning potential also without attending HE. Does everyone need to go to HE?
  3. Idea of the trilemma that Prof. Cloete presented and that can be found in greater detail in Ben Ansell’s book is one way of conceptualizing that there are always local trade-offs.
  4. At the same time it is important to understand that the existing system of higher education financing also influences the perception and expectations of citizens, meaning as tuition fees are a taboo in Norway, complete tuition free higher education is unthinkable in the US. South Africa is at a critical juncture that will shape the system for the coming years (path dependence).
  5. This has democratic implications in the sense that departing from existing systems can be politically costly as there will be winners and losers. Especially in situation where HE competes with other duties of the state for expenditures due to limited income of the state this gets even more complex, given that participation in HE and thus also the gains from it are skewed towards the wealthy part of the population
  6. As HE also cannot heal all the problems that already persist at the lower end of the educational system, this gets even more complex, if e.g. the diversity in quality of secondary education is very high.
  7. Many SSA countries already have comparatively high percentages of their budgets being spend on education. Even though part of that going into HE is often comparatively small, it is hard to make major shifts in education budget since many countries are still in a process where the secondary schooling quality is not coherently at a high level. At the same time, it is also hard to argue for massive increases o the education budget when it is already at a high level.
  8. Given the growing demographic pressure to increase access to higher education throughout the region this most probably will be a hot topic for the coming decades -- diverse students are more expensive. Especially, since a study from SARUA estimated that economically these investments will only pay off for the government after several decades. Thus if I have to win elections in 4 years investing in long term development might be less attractive than building new houses or improving health care. So in a situation like the South African with large protests that put pressure on the government to decrease or abolish tuition fees there is a certain danger for governments to take the easy way out and abolish tuition fees without providing public funds to balance out the loss in income (tuition as budget balancer)  this can lead to a threat for academic quality in the long run and threaten the stability of the system.
  9. This in turn has a socio-economic effect, as HE systems with poor quality will not be able to provide students with the skills needed to turn their education into an asset for the labor market and while low and middle income students are tied to their national system the students from rich background can opt out and visit universities abroad, which might give them an additional advantage
  10. So when working on the budgetary constraints of a developing country providing free higher education of a decent quality to an increasing percentage of young people is a serious challenge and a “Norwegian” solution might just not be possible or actually have negative effects on the social mobility and fairness of the system
  11. Problem with any tuition fee system is though that it needs a strong student support to balance out negative effects and there is always the slippery slope danger that once a system is in place it is hard to move away from it and it is an easy way to balance budgets
  12. Additionally, there is solid research from social psychology that especially people from lower socio economic background are debt averse with regard to educational investments which have a longer time horizon for their pay-off -- who pays for loans that cannot be repaid? If government, then de facto higher public spending, if HEIs then high risk for unis
  13. Finally, every system as grey areas of people that are in between the supported category and the category of those who can afford it, which makes fine tuning of tuition systems especially difficult and an ongoing process.