Picture: CHRIS THURMAN
Picture: CHRIS THURMAN

ONE of the ironies of our society is that a free pass for the wealthy has become a radical demand — to the dismay of many who it would benefit.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s approval for university fee increases was denounced by supporters of free higher education, despite relief for students who cannot pay. This was no surprise: the demand that no one pay for higher university has become, for many radicals, an article of faith. And so, not for the first time, we are told that the most radical position is that those who can afford public services should not pay.

Radicals are meant to believe that resources should be redistributed from those who have to those who are forced to go without. But free tertiary education, by enabling those who can afford much more to contribute nothing, would redistribute upwards, not downwards.

Opponents of free higher education usually say it is unaffordable. This misses the point: money is available for free post-school education, but only if there is less for other public services. Free university is affordable only if programmes that serve the poor — social grants, primary health and, for that matter, basic education — are reduced. And that must promote, not reduce, inequality.

Supporters of free higher education say this can be prevented by increasing taxes: since the wealthy will pay more, they will not benefit at the expense of the poor. Others argue that it can be funded if government cuts down on waste. But why should the money either step would yield go to the families of students rather than single mothers in poverty, or jobless young people?

Brazil’s experience is a warning — there, free higher education increases inequality. Brazil affords it by limiting places in the best public universities. Since the affluent can afford much better schooling, their children get the best marks and are admitted at the expense of the poor. This widens inequality in each generation as those with money receive, free, the better university places, which keeps them ahead.

Some Fees Must Fall campaigners say they are demanding free primary and secondary education too — this, they say, would prevent free universities becoming inequality factories. But no students demonstrated when schools charged fees in 2016. When the government appointed a commission to look at fee-free higher education, no students objected that schools were excluded. If free tertiary education was introduced, students are hardly likely to refuse unless schooling is free too. And schools could only become free if money is denied to other social purposes, so the wealthy can send their children to school for free.

This does not mean all students are fat cats looking for a freebie — many battle to study and maintain themselves, even if they get some financial help: more than a few cannot afford more than one meal a day. Still less does it mean that current funding allows everyone who merits a higher education to get one: capable students are excluded because they cannot afford a modest registration fee. It is crucial that no one is denied an education simply because they cannot afford it.

But free higher education would make this less likely because it rules out an obvious funding source: the fees of those who can pay. Helping only those who cannot pay does not give the affluent a free pass: it would probably require them to pay much more, as they do in other societies. Well-heeled opponents of the student demand seem unaware that it would protect them from paying so that the poor can study. There is a clear parallel with the campaign against e-tolls, in which radical rhetoric was used to demand that car owners not be forced to pay directly for freeways.

So why are people who say they want a fairer deal for the poor insisting on one for the rich? Probably because, although demands for redistribution have always been part of politics here, their prime target has been racial inequality, not social and economic divides.

Given race’s importance here, this is hardly surprising. But it does mean that inequality within groups has never been the core concern, whatever rhetoric says — and so campaigners are less inclined to look at whether demands benefit the better off at the expense of the poor.

This may make demands like that for free higher education understandable. But it does not alter the reality that public services can reach all who need them only if those who can pay their share, do.

Prof Friedman is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Democracy.