Reflections

“Education is Free in Jail”

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By Spliph, South Africa:

There is a picture doing the rounds on social media, of a young woman holding a placard with the words: Education is free in jail. Should I become a criminal in order to get educated?

Student organizations have sparked a national crisis, perhaps even of the same scale of protests under apartheid.

There have been subtle mentions that what we saw last year with the #FeesMustFall movement is nothing relative to what is happening ?in this round of university protests against fees. Students are gearing up for war; after the increase on the tuition fees.

Earlier this year national treasury committed to provide a further R16bn to halt fees increases: R5bn covered the hike deficit (after President Jacob Zuma agreed not to increase university fees for 2016) while the remainder went towards settling outstanding student debt. Government spending on education will go from R68.7bn currently to R80.5bn over the next three years.

Just under R14.3bn of that was allocated went towards the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for the 2015/16 period. This drops to R13.2bn and R13.7bn in the following two financial years.

A few weeks ago the ANC national executive committee said it would push for a no fee increase for the 2017 academic year. At the same time, universities announced that for them to keep running, they would need a minimum increase of 8% (or a grant from the government to the same value).

The average students pays R35 000 a year for a degree. This excludes books, travel and accommodation.

Treasury says it allocated R68.7bn to post-school education and training, of this, R24.6bn goes towards university subsidies. Overall government subsidies including national, provincial, social security funds and entities for the fiscal year amount to R407.2 bn. This is 27.8% of total expenditure for this year. Transfers and subsidies are expected to reach R468.4 billion in 2018/19, implying a nominal average growth rate of 7% over the 2016 MTEF (Medium Term Expenditure Framework).

About 1 million students are enrolled into higher education across the country. This includes technikons and teacher training colleges.

Over the past 21 years, South Africa has lost more than R700bn to corruption. And this is only an estimate that excludes crimes which we do not know about.

Now you tell me we can’t afford free university education?!

While a student some years ago, I had to get a job and not rely on the R20 000 my father left me before passing. That was barely enough for one year of tuition, I then had to depend on the goodwill of relatives to complete my studies.

By those standards I was extremely fortunate; I have friends who never had the opportunity to obtain higher education. And many of them would probably end up in a life of crime, since jobs are hard to come by when they have no skills to speak of. This takes me to the cost to the prisons system.

Last year a parliamentary committee reported that the cost of keeping prisoners behind bars between for five months ( May to October) was R9.8bn. Monitoring those on parole cost the department R167.33/ a day for each parolee. For each of the criminals behind bars, it costs the department paid R350/ per day.

According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, there were 159,563 prisoners in SA by the end of 2015.

Let’s do some math: R350 by 159,563 prisoners for 365 days is a hefty R20bn a year. Those incarcerated receive food, bedding, clothes, work, and education all free. That’s in addition to the free accommodation, as guests of the taxpayer.

Meanwhile, those who are free struggle each day for such luxuries. It hardly seems fair for the poor and law-abiding citizens. This shows something is not right. Why are students having to fight for what is free in prison? I am not advocating the release or starving of prisoners. What I am advocating for is the free university education for poor students.

Without proper education and employment prospects, most people succumb to a life of poverty and crime, which puts a strain on the economy. Many of these are the very same young people we deny education through lack of money to pay for it. They come back to extract their due in the taxes we pay to fund their upkeep in prison. There are not many winners here, and this is unsustainable.

It’s not merely enough to freeze increases, even if it is for the poor. Already many cannot afford education as it is. Free education is possible.

How many times has the SA Airways, Eskom and the Postal office asked for and received completely undeserved cash bail outs? We are more than happy to bail out ailing dinosaurs, but need a mob to convince us that youth education is worth investing in?

Minimising the government’s wasteful expenditure, corruption and economic mismanagement could release monies to fund free education.

Some economists, like Azar Jammine of Econometrix, believe a viable solution can be found, provided the money is taken from other government departments. Finance minister Pravin Gordhan seemed to agree with Jammine when he told the Rumble in the Urban Jungle conference a few weeks ago: We can very easily pay for some of the things we are pressured for at the moment, (like) fees for university students who come for poor backgrounds. Just stop some of the corruption that’s going on.

As a recent graduate myself, I know only too well that free university education for poor students in carefully selected and scarce skills is urgently needed. There would be great economic benefits for all. The cycle of poverty would be broken as a start, as well educated graduates are able to get jobs and then move on to create jobs themselves.

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