The facts about fees

| June 17, 2016 | 0 Comments

By Lebogang Montjane

In the last issue of Independent Education, I explored the significance of protests at South African and American universities against institutional symbols deemed to honour individuals that advocated discriminatory practices in the past.

In South Africa, these remonstrations did not only target institutional tropes: instead, students began to link how some of them come from families that continue to endure material deprivation with the individuals whose likenesses and names appear prominently around their universities. As we now know, that was only the beginning of challenges made by students, who now seek a greater shift in how our country prioritises their futures and the generations that are to follow. Quizzically, last year, following fee increases at universities, students demanded through the #FeesMustFall campaign1 not that fees must be reduced, but that they must be eradicated. To bolster this extraordinary call on the public purse, these proponents of free tertiary education mustered arguments and practices previously tried on our continent, as well as in other post-colonial nations. At the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, it was these very experiences that were drawn upon to create a hybrid educational financing system.

For an independent schools’ association whose membership is largely predicated on fees for their existence, is it a feasible or desirable proposition that those who receive educational instruction not make any monetary contribution towards their education, but that the education system must rely on the fiscus to cover all costs?

Rights and responsibilities

Embedded in our Constitution is the understanding that no country has unlimited resources to meet every need in society. In the case of South Africa, the democratic state will have resource constraints to eradicate the backlog of created deprivation in the country. Section 29(1)(a) of the Constitution recognises the right to basic education “and obliges the government to provide education for all citizens, regardless of the nation’s financial or political climate.”3 That is not the case for higher education, which is a progressive right. Section 29(1)(b) of the Constitution declares, “Everyone has the right to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.” A qualification that a right is granted on a progressive basis, means that “the government is protected from prosecution if unable to finance full, immediate realisation of citizens’ rights in these areas”.4 My point should not be misconstrued to intimate that I do not believe in the extraordinary individual and public benefit that a quality education at the highest level provides. Rather, I contend that quality education should be given to all citizens, but that such an education needs all the resources it can receive and not fewer. That is why the manner in which South Africa has elected to approach school funding seems more prudent than solely burdening the state with appropriately capitalising educational provisioning.

The South African school funding model

In alignment with sections 29(1) and (3) of the Constitution, chapters three and five of the South African Schools Act5 (SASA) recognise two types of schools: public and independent, respectively. Even though the state is mandated to fund public schools, South Africa has wisely adopted a revenue recovery model that takes account of the poor. To this end, section 36(1) of SASA placed the responsibility of endeavouring to improve school quality on governing bodies, when it requires that “[a] governing body of a public school must take all reasonable measures within its means to supplement the resources supplied by the State in order to improve the quality of education provided by the school to all learners at that school”. By this, SASA upholds dual responsibility for school funding: the state and parents. However, through the funding equation contained in section 35 of SASA, the state provides “state funding to all public schools in a fair and equitable manner”.6 In order not to indirectly undermine its duty to provide universal access to education, section 39(7) of SASA obligates the Minister of Basic Education to prohibit certain schools from charging fees. This approach brought South Africa success in being very close to achieving the 2015 Millennium Development Goal of universal access to primary education, with nearly 98.9% of all South African children attending primary school in 2011.7 In permitting public schools to charge fees, the government is able to ensure that those parents who can make a contribution to their child’s education do so, whilst those families that are truly indigent are not excluded from accessing schooling.

Fees and functionality

Regrettably, there seems to be evidence to indicate that public schools which are able to charge school fees produce better outcomes than those that charge no fees. Late last year, in an article in the Sunday Times, Nic Spaull wrote an article under the banner: “While the rich get education, SA’s poor get just ‘schooling’.”8 Having observed that between 66% and 88% (according to Spaull, this statistic is dependent on whether you ask the pupils or the administrators) of South African public schools charge no fees, he posits that generally these schools are dysfunctional. He states that these schools “are dysfunctional, because they do not impart the knowledge, skills and values needed to succeed in life. There are at least 10 independently conducted, nationally representative surveys attesting to this.”9 This then raises the question, what are the prospects of quality teaching and learning on limited resources? Conversely, Spaull highlights the fact that “[t]he tragic reality in South Africa is that if your parents are in the ‘top’ part of the labour market (the [top] 15%), then you send your children to the ‘top’ part of the schooling system (for which fees are charged). That gives your children access to university and that same ‘top’ part of the labour market you are in.”10 There cannot be a better illustration of the old adage that “you get what you pay for”.

Those who can, must

Before answering the question posed above, I want to outline South Africa’s commitment to needs-based school funding, even for independent schools. Whilst section 29(3) of the Constitution grants the right to any person to establish an independent school at their own expense, it does not preclude the state from dispensing subsidies to such schools. These Constitutional provisions are then mirrored in SASA. The result is that in keeping with its principles of assisting those who need access to education, government does provide subsidies to eligible independent schools. Within ISASA, an estimated 20% of our membership qualify as beneficiaries of this public largesse. Again, the government is consistent in assisting those who are indigent and insisting that those with means must make their fair contribution. There does not seem to be a countervailing argument that reasonably assails such a proposition. Those who can, must; those who need help should be given the requisite uplift.

Fees are necessary for survival

From an ISASA perspective, our experience as institutions that predominantly rely on fees to cover the running costs of educating our charges, multiple income streams enhance the ability of schools to provide a quality education. ISASA schools rely on fees as the primary base to fulfil their mission to achieve excellence. Without fee income, even those educational institutions with large endowments would struggle to survive. Worldwide, there are very few such institutions still in existence. ISASA is privileged to have a couple of such schools. But they are extremely rare. It should be noted that the benefactors of these members are still alive.

History seems to indicate that after a time, initial bequests for the provision of free education do not subsist in perpetuity. We need only turn to the example of William Marsh Rice, who donated his fortune to found a tuition-free tertiary institution, Rice University in Houston, Texas in the US.11 Within a century of its founding, it had to begin charging fees if it were to continue providing the high-calibre education for which it is renowned. Presently, Cooper Union12 (another highly rated institution) is undergoing the difficult transition to mandating fees, after being free since its inception in 1859.

Caveat emptor

On the African continent, we know that singularly turning to public coffers for funding diminishes the probability of stellar educational outcomes. We must extract caution from the experiences of our brethren. In her book Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie13 explores the perils of depending entirely on the state for educational funding. Her protagonist, Ifemelu, ends up having to apply for a scholarship to attend university in the US, because of the perennial teacher strikes at Nigerian universities. As her paramour’s mother, a university lecturer, observes: “I understand the students’ grievances, but we are not the enemy. The military is the enemy. They have not paid our salary in months. How can we teach if we cannot eat?”

Ironically, part of the student funding crises at South African universities is due to the poor administration of the national bursary fund. In their agitation for immediate solutions to current funding shortfalls, the students’ proposed resolution to the problem has the potential to systemise maladministration in the tertiary sector. The result will be poor-quality universities whose degrees will not permit their holders to gain suitable employment or to contribute to humanity’s development.

Look to the future

The crisis of underfunding students at universities must be addressed. Although I cannot claim to have the panacea, a probable model that can be adopted is that which we have implemented in our funding scheme for basic education. Identify candidates with demonstrated need and fund them to the extent of their indigence, on condition that they maintain satisfactory performance in their fields of study. What is certain is that a regressive policy of no fees will impoverish every student and their institutions of learning. South Africa cannot afford to permit this generation of university students to destroy future generations’ prospects of living in a thriving society populated by a truly educated polity.


1. See: 20160223145336908.
2. See:
3. See:
4. Ibid.
5. See: aIolZ6UsZ5U%3D&tabid=767&mid=3184.
6. Ibid.
7. See: 2013.pdf.
8. See: get-education-SAs-poor-get-just-schooling.
9. Ibid.
10. Ibid.
11. See:
12. See:
13. Adichie, C.N. (2014) Americanah. New York City: Anchor Books.
14. Ibid.

Category: Winter 2016

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