Sustainable higher education funding

Sustainable higher education funding

Since late in 2015, the South African government has been under pressure to respond to an unprecedented post-1994 student movement demanding free university tuition. The no fee increase concession has placated university students for the time-being and given government time to reflect and consult on the future funding of South African higher education, and the inevitable trade-offs that will accompany any revised funding framework. The media debate has generally been ill-informed. Often overlooked is the evidence that no fees in an inefficient university system characterised by low participation and high inequality will benefit the country’s elite and further dampen the contribution of higher education to development. Nor can universities alone provide the skilled labour needed for economic growth. Structural and funding reform is needed but government does not have infinite reserves. The evidence shows that what is required for equitable and sustainable transformation is a differentiated post-school system, with differentiated funding and fees; an acknowledgement of the trade-offs between participation, public investment and fees in the university system; and a coordinated effort between students and leaders from all sectors to re-establish the university’s role in reducing poverty and driving development.

In 1996 in the National Commission on Higher Education transformation was framed around three principles: equity, democracy and development. The final NCHE report also followed that order, with little attention to development, as did two decades of policy and debates in higher education. However, in 2016, there is a rather harsh ‘realisation’ that without taking development seriously, equity and democracy are both under threat. The recent debates about free higher education also focus on equity and democracy (rights) but if one approaches the debate from a development perspective, and examine the evidence and research on higher education funding and particularly fees internationally, a different story emerges.


View the summary of this story and a set of power point slides (Fees and Sustainable Funding) that summarise and illustrate the research in this area. The ultimate aim is to try and shift the debate from one less informed by ideology and more by evidence. 

Read "University student fees - A trilemma of trade-offs" published by University World News.

Selected CHET publications on higher education funding in South Africa:

  1. Cloete N, Mouton J & Sheppard C (2015) Doctoral Education in South Africa. Cape Town: African Minds. 
  2. Cloete N (2015) Flawed ideology of free higher education. University World News, 6 November 2015.
  3. Cloete N (2016a) Free higher education: Another self-destructive South African policy. Cape Town: CHET. 
  4. Cloete N (2016b) For sustainable funding and fees, the undergraduate system in South Africa must be restructured. South African Journal of Science (March/April).  
  5. Langa P, Wangenge-Ouma G, Jungblut J & Cloete N (2016). South Africa and the illusion of free higher education. University World News, 26 February 2016. 
  6. Pillay P (2011) Linking Higher Education and Development. Cape Town: CHET.