Recently, we were told by the higher education minister that those students who passed matric and qualified for financial assistance would be able to study for free at FET colleges. This means that students do not need to worry about paying registration fees or anything at all if they are found to meet the stipulated criteria.
On one hand, this is a great opportunity for those matric students who did not qualify to get into universities for financial reasons to further their studies, because finance should not be a restricting factor to students who want to pursue their dreams and make their lives better. The idea is also to increase the number of youth who are qualified to get jobs, allowing for a greater growth in the level of educated people in South Africa. Final year students who qualify for financial aid would also need not worry about not receiving their degrees due to unpaid fees as they would see their loans turned into bursaries that they do not need to repay.
On the other hand, problems can stem from such a noble idea. Some students can carry with them a sense of entitlement, thinking that free education is their right. This can spill over into the job market where, if we are not careful, that generation of students will begin to demand jobs to go along with their given educational experience. As much as the government is promising to create jobs for the unemployed, it is not their role to do so and with the extra number of students who graduate from the many institutions in our nation increasing, the more they’ll look to government to provide. The mindset of waiting for jobs will not change and the majority of the poor in South Africa will not actively seek employment or even create their own way to earn money as they expect things to fall into their lap.
Nothing can be said to be truly free, especially when it comes to higher education. The cost of supporting this venture will eventually land on the taxpayer and even though they are not paying for their education outright now, in the long run they will feel the cost of it as money from the scheme has to come from somewhere and eventually the government will announce that they cannot carry the cost alone. And it is a ridiculous expectation for the rich to carry the cost, as this will also affect the very students who will go on to become successful businessmen, carrying the cost of free education from the money they worked hard to get.
It seems that the next step will be not only to attempt to make all tertiary education free, but also the lower grades as well. Yet if this is done, it does not necessarily spell good news for teachers. They’ll be expected to contribute to the pass rate of the country by making sure their students do not fail their matric exams, yet their salaries will not reflect their responsibility. Teachers are always said to be the great contributors to our nation’s growth, yet they are constantly undermined and their role not seen to be as valuable as a politician’s job.
When people have not learnt to be responsible for their own lives, providing free education does not encourage responsibility, it just tells them they can do what needs to be done to pass and not worry about the consequences of failure. For if it is free, failing means you don’t pay for what you used up. So on one hand we create access to higher education, but on the other, a potential black hole which no amount of money can ever fill.