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An Open Letter to the State President and the Ministers of Higher Education and Finance

Save our public universities

We, academics of South African universities, call on our government to address the funding crisis in higher education.

A key strategy that post-apartheid governments undertook to reduce race and class inequality after apartheid was to substantially increase access to universities in South Africa. Between 1994 and 2014, the number of students in our public universities more than doubled.(1) During the same period the proportion of black students at universities increased from 52% to 81% of the student population.(2) We have welcomed the massification and deracialisation of access to universities as a necessary democratisation of higher education after apartheid, and as our contribution to building a better society.

The problem is that massification has not been matched by adequate funding. Year on year we have seen a decrease in real terms of government funding to public universities. The effect of this has been to create conditions of austerity in universities, as well as to force universities to grow their revenue by increasing tuition fees and ‘third stream’ income. Despite increases in NSFAS, high student fees continue to cause exclusions and our students are increasingly stressed by mounting debt, which has risen staggeringly since the mid-1990s.(3) Public universities have thus been put in slow decline: the quality of teaching and infrastructure of our institutions of higher learning is deteriorating because of long-term austerity, and this has been accompanied by a submission to privatisation and debt.

Our public universities can in fact barely be called public, with national government subsidies to university budgets falling from an already low 49% in 2000 to 40% in 2012.(4) This has placed enormous pressure on the maintenance and improvement of core educational infrastructure such as laboratories, libraries, lecture theatres and student residences. Furthermore, staff:student ratios have continuously increased because the employment of full-time academic staff has not matched increases in student numbers. There is also a growing tendency to casualise academic labour through short-term appointments, which has led to the exploitation especially of younger academics, while undermining the quality of teaching, and increasing the administrative burden on full time academic staff. Crucially, casualisation and increased workloads at universities undermine our research capacity. The impact of high quality original research on national development cannot be overstated, and the threat to research capacity has enormous consequences for the future of our country.

Lack of investment in our public universities is not only a national crisis, but has negative effect on our standing in Africa. Since the end of Apartheid, our universities have trained cohorts of postgraduate students from the region and across the continent. South Africa’s tertiary institutions currently educate many of the continent’s best students, who are increasingly turning to South African universities as Africans are de facto excluded from British and North American institutions. Investing in our universities would maintain our reputation on the continent, create strong connections between future African leaders, and produce goodwill and opportunities for South Africa in decades to come.

The Council on Higher Education, established by the Department of Higher Education and Training itself, argues that despite the fact that ‘higher education in South Africa has been regarded as a key to social and economic development… its expenditure on higher education is much lower than desirable or needed.’(5) South Africa spends a mere 0.6% of GDP on its universities, lagging behind many other countries (Russia at 1.8%, Argentina and 1.4, India at 1.3%).(6)

With government not funding in full the financial shortfall resulting from the 0% fee freeze in 2016, universities have had to cut costs further from their already-stretched budgets. This has impacted all of us in our daily work, but Historically Black Universities have been the hardest hit because of a historical deficit in reserves and reduced access to private income. Thus, a further hierarchisation of our universities is taking place, compounding older race and class divisions in higher education.

In short, our universities are chronically underfunded. We are being threatened with cuts to our teaching programmes, our research budgets, hiring is being frozen, posts down-graded, and the core functions of universities are being put under threat. We have reached a limit. We simply cannot weather any further cuts without jeopardizing the academic project.

As academics responsible for the quality of South African universities, we call on government to take seriously the worth of university education as a public good, and to reverse the decline in public higher education by substantially increasing the state subsidy to universities.

Circulated by the academics of the School of Social Sciences, University of the Witwatersrand

  1. Student numbers rose from 495,000 in 1994 to almost a million students in 2014. Council on Higher Education. 2016. South African Higher Education Reviewed: Two Decades of Democracy. Pretoria.
  2.  Higher Education South Africa. 2014. South African Higher Education in the 20th Year of Democracy: Context, Achievements and Key Challenges, pp.1-2. These numbers do not of course capture the manner in which institutions remain differentially racialised.
  3.  Steyn and De Villiers. 2006. The Impact of changing funding on higher education institutions in South Africa. Higher Education Monitor, No.4, March.
  4.  PriceWaterhouseCooper, Funding of public higher education institutions in South Africa.
  5.  Council on Higher Education. 2016. South African Higher Education Reviewed: Two Decades of Democracy. Pretoria.
  6.  Bozzoli, ‘Behind the university funding crisis’ Politicsweb 19 October 2015.

Comments (6)

Margaret Matthews

Thank you for this submission. The content will be supported by academics country-wide, as the current crisis has far-reaching consequences.

Thank you for sharing this information.
You are describing a global phenomenon when governements have to make budgetary cuts.

Higher education, in spite of all rhetorics that it is essential for national development, is at a crossroad as the general culture is that public funded institutions have to demonstrate the effectiveness of their work and the impact on people wellbeing. One should accept that the concept of well being including health must be univoquely understood by all parties concerned : national authorities, public institutions and society that those institutions are supposed to serve. It is not as easy as one may think and the public budget may not be restored without making some important concessions.

The notion of social accountability applied to higher education institutions is, for instance,an opportunity to provide strong evidence to funders that support must not only remain but eventually increase. This notion is being increasingly considered and implemented in medical schools worldwide. It leads, among many other actions, to bind stronger relationships between medical schools and with key stakeholders, and create added value to their educational, research and service delivery functions. Other health related institutions show interest in this strategy, and higher education institutions accross the board would benefit from this approach, including in terms of budgetary support.

Just a flash comment to stimulate further thoughts. More information is available on internet..
Best wishes.
Charles Boelen

I endorse Charles’ opinion. We need to demonstrate “value to society” in terms of university output, i.e. a demonstrable return on the investment. The contributions universities make to society need to be documented to argue for funding in a coherent and evidence-based manner. The notion of “we make a valuable contribution to society” needs to be substantiated if a case for “a greater slice of a finite pie” is to be upheld. For example, throughput data (successful graduation), percentage employed graduates, retention in SA and the rest of Africa, translation of research to improve health care, social services, the environment, etc. would make a case for the “value added” by higher education. Creating an evidence-based mandate for increased funding is an urgent priority.

Thank you, Michael, for this necessary commentary. I am passionate about this topic, and I’d like to add to the list of effects of high fees. As someone involved in student support, I see many. many students who fail exams due to personal problems. A common underlying reason for this is a lack of funds, which compromises their accommodation (we’ve had students sleeping at medical school); their meals (I’ve had students eating only one or two meals a week); their self-esteem and their overall performance in the wards or in class. Financial problems frequently compromise students’ psychiatric well-being- we have had several extreme cases in the recent past. The cycle is perpetuated when these students fail entire courses and have then to extend their time at university, which costs even more. Extended periods of time studying compromise not only the student, but in many cases, their family or indeed their entire neighbourhood or village, who have been waiting for that source of income. The country also loses when crushing debt results in young graduates working overseas in order to make the most of the exchange rates to settle what is owed. I fully support what you have put forward. Government has a lot to answer for here, and must act urgently.

Our leaders has failled us in so many ways. This new culture that was created to want everything for free is slowly destroying many people lives, but mostly the younger generation. Before you make a decision as a leader, you need wisdom. To know what will be the impact of your decision. Race has become a part of every decision. We can`t go forward as a nation because, we choose to live in the past. We can`t forgive each other because the one was more privilege than the other. Yes, many things was taken away from our people, many of them already past away. Many of them did`nt see the change, but we did. We have a chance on a better furture for ourselves and our children. Here we are, still figthing and we are taking away our own privileges for a better furture. The hatred for one another has been pass on from one generation to the next generation. If we can`t get something for free, we burn down schools, we destroy everything that comes in our way, even a life that is more precious and valuable. I can`t change the past neither can any of us. But we can change the furture. Many breadwinners already lost they jobs, because of wrong choices that have been made. At the moment nobody is thinking of the next person only themselves. In life nothing is for free. We have to work hard so that we can tell our children I did`nt stole anything form anybody. I did`nt let someone lost they job because, I wanted something for free. By downgrating our institutions is taking away the best you can be. There will be obstacles, challenges but if you believe in yourself, many already did and become the best.

It is time for our leaders to become a Moses, David, Daniel etc. To lead us the nation and teach us, lead us into victory despite our believes and cultures. And the best of all to love one another.

My mom is a domestic worker. After matric there was no money to study further. But this did`nt keep me from dreaming and working hard. Today I am a admin-assistent, not because of my race, our apartheid. But because GOD said so.

Thank you Michael for starting the conversation. Universities in SA aren’t unique when faced with this particular issue as indicated by one comment above, maybe what would set us apart would be to become more proactive rather than reactive. I do think that we as South Africans should be ‘creative’ in our thinking, yes even in these tough times for higher education, and look at offering solutions to this issue rather than restating the enormity of the problem. As a person on the ground in higher education my sense is that we know the issues in detail and have much to offer in respect of solutions- but as usual those that listen are few, if any. From my point of view I think that HEI in SA should become financially & administratively & organisational/ educationally etc. more transparent and accountable to the SA public as a whole without the technical jargon of intellectuals- and preferably not at a time of need. We should ask for reprioritization of our governmental resources and HEI in SA should source partnerships with entrepreneurs/business national and international who ‘consume’ many graduates over and above what they are already doing. To name but a few obvious(and mentioned) points to consider as solutions to financial crisis. But more than this I think as people living in this beautiful country with abundance of resources, we are able to find solutions for the problems that we face in higher education. I hope that we as a society rather than just academics are able to engage in a well-informed solution driven discussion using the student voices, intellectuals and the South African public at large and hold those in leadership to account.

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