AS PROTESTS flare up again at South African universities, the issue of free education makes it back into political debate. So far, the responses by the government and university managements have been ad hoc and haphazard. Instead of tackling the issue head-on right after 2015’s protests, the government has been plodding along. So have most university leaders.

This lack of preventive governance seems to have become a trademark of our country. We have long known about the likelihood of severe droughts including the serious strain they place on water provision, yet no serious planning has taken place. On the contrary, we keep supporting mining operations, industrial agriculture, coal-fired stations and nuclear plants as if this infrastructure did not require massive amounts of water we don’t possess.

We have been heading for food and energy shortages, yet obsolescence and distribution bottlenecks are not addressed. We keep investing in highly inefficient "big is beautiful" projects that waste resources and fuel corruption, instead of supporting small-scale farming and decentralised renewable energy systems that can contribute meaningfully to our food and energy security.

We know that the economy keeps shrinking and there is no way we can tackle the multiple challenges of poverty eradication and sustainable development through conventional approaches. Yet we close our eyes and hope that a magical turn of events will get us out of this mess.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s announcement that the state will cover the fee increases for the most disadvantaged students and the so-called missing middle is certainly a step forward. But it’s not a long-term solution given public budget constraints. For many students, it is not a solution at all as it doesn’t attend to the overarching call for free education. Moreover, an 8% increase comes at a time of prolonged economic hardship for many better-off households. It is hard not to side with students when the government finds money for all sorts of extravagances, from unnecessary home security upgrades to bailouts for poorly managed airlines and multibillion-rand nuclear deals, but never has enough to support things that really matter, such as education.

There is a growing consensus that the future of development will be defined by two factors: human and natural capital. Societies that do not put education and natural ecosystems at the core of their planning are doomed. Wealth and progress depend on how we treat young and future generations, as well as the resource base on which they thrive. This is why the issue of free education is so important.

In many respects, it is the essential driver of economic transformation, technological progress, social emancipation and conflict resolution, all things we purport to care for — except when it’s time to decide how to invest public revenues.

While we wait for the commission of inquiry into university fees to publish its results — hoping it will do better than previous commissions, whose expensive proceedings have told us nothing we didn’t already know — some innovative action is needed. At my centre, GovInn, we have launched a Fees Can Fall prize for 2017, to be awarded to students who have demonstrated commitment to fostering collective wellbeing at their universities. Our goal is to stimulate open debate on how to achieve free education in SA, hoping to inspire other groups in society to join in.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme is under a lot of pressure because of limited resources and increasing numbers of students who cannot afford the rising costs of tertiary education. The government is downscaling investment in universities, which forces management to increase fees. It’s a vicious circle that makes everybody tense and can easily trigger conflict.

To break out of this impasse we need to reduce the friction between students, universities and the government while involving the rest of society to take responsibility for ensuring a more equitable and affordable education system.

Building on the experience of Australia, for instance, we could introduce a financial scheme allowing students to defer the costs of tuition until they get a job and make repayments proportional not to the loaned amount, but to their future salary scales. Unlike conventional loans, which put many students in a debt trap, a repayment method proportional to future earnings guarantees a better distribution of risk, given that some students will end up paying more than they borrowed, thus subsidising those whose jobs are not remunerated well enough.

Students who don’t find jobs would either be exonerated from repayment for as long as they remain in that condition, or the government could require them to perform functions of collective benefit in return for the public investment that allowed them to study for free.

Such a system has numerous advantages. It provides immediate relief to students who want to pursue education but do not have the means to do so. By using future earnings as collateral rather than current economic circumstances, the vicious cycle of debt and anxiety that comes with it is removed. Moreover, this system is more efficient than conventional public funding and more democratic than private loans: anybody can access it, poor and rich, without expensive screening processes that delay applications and sap already limited financial resources. The more diverse the applicants, the more likely it is that high-income earners’ contributions will offset the lower repayments of those earning less.

I believe such a funding scheme would guarantee high returns and could very well be managed by a public-private partnership involving the state and private banks. The latter would make financial resources available, while the former would act as a payer of last resort: a guarantor that public money would be injected into the system in case of unexpected losses.

In many ways, this approach shifts the responsibility for equitable education from individual students and their families to society as a whole. The government would benefit a great deal from a well-managed economy producing good job opportunities, because maintaining a positive cycle of repayments means public resources can be invested in other critical areas.

Banks would have a direct incentive to support companies that create good jobs, because their returns would be directly dependent on the quality and quantity of well-remunerated professions available across society. This system has the potential to turn the current lose-lose into a win-win, saving the government a lot of money and creating good investment opportunities for the private sector. A trigger of transformation and social justice. Exactly what we need to turn the economy around.

• Fioramonti (@lofioramonti) is director of GovInn at the University of Pretoria and a member of WE-Africa.org