Thabo Mbeki questions South Africa’s free higher education policy

Former president warns that scrapping fees will lead to high dropout rates and challenges of capacity

March 9, 2018
Source: Alamy

South Africa’s move to make higher education free for most students will lead to high dropout rates and create problems of capacity in the university sector, Thabo Mbeki, the country’s former president, has warned.

Mr Mbeki, who led the country from 1999 to 2008 and is now chancellor of the University of South Africa, said that the nation still has to “deal more comprehensively with the issue of funding of education”.

Last month, South Africa introduced free tuition and maintenance support for students from households with a combined annual income of less than R350,000 (£20,563), in a move that outgoing president Jacob Zuma said would cover more than 90 per cent of families.

But, in an interview with Times Higher Education, Mr Mbeki said that university funding cannot be dealt with “in a piecemeal fashion” and that the free higher education model “creates its own problems”.

“The problem inevitably is that there will be high dropout rates,” he said. “Many students cannot go beyond the first year [of university] because the grounding [in education] is not there.”

The government must ask what it can do to better prepare students so that they do not drop out, Mr Mbeki added.

A “country like South Africa” must also ask “what kind of intake of students we can afford”, he continued.

“If you say higher education will be fee-free, everyone will flood in and you haven’t dealt with capacity,” Mr Mbeki said, suggesting that a student number cap could deal with this issue.

“South Africa still hasn’t done a comprehensive review [of higher education funding], which it needs to do. Fee-free education is important but insufficient – it creates its own problems,” he said.

Mr Mbeki was speaking at IE University in Madrid, after taking part in the institution’s Reinventing Higher Education conference.

In conversation with Santiago Iniguez, IE’s president, Mr Mbeki suggested that Africa could become the new bastion of globalisation – and internationalisation of higher education – in response to the rise of insular populism in Europe and the US.

The title of the event was “Higher education in times of anti-globalisation”, but Mr Mbeki said that the “sentiment” in Africa is “quite the opposite”.

“The sentiment on the continent [of Africa] is pro-globalisation,” he said, adding that African universities “want better cooperation with universities globally, on an equal basis”.

Mr Mbeki also spoke about collaboration in the African continent, highlighting a “pan-African university” initiative that was established under his presidency, aimed at widening access to higher education.

The scheme has resulted in individual universities across the continent becoming “centres of excellence” in different subject areas on the condition that they provide access to all African students that are interested in their specialism.

“We don’t have the resources to build the higher education institutions in the numbers that are required in each country, but since we are all Africans together…why don’t we cooperate to address this need to develop this intelligence using the resources that we have?” he said.

“It is a very important initiative because then you don’t have to get out of the continent to get the highest level of access to knowledge and training.” 

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