Free quality tertiary education in South Africa is a top topic among students, politicians and the media. South Africa, like many other countries, offers subsidised tertiary education. Countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden are able to offer free tertiary education to their citizens.

The Brazilian government offers free tertiary education up to a post-graduate level through federal or state universities, where students are required to pay a registration fee. In Brazil, public universities are considered to offer the highest quality education, but are notoriously difficult to get into. According to QS Top Universities, “There are nearly ten candidates for every place in public universities, while in private universities the ratio is less than two-to-one.”

Deborah Pereira, a law student in a private university in Brazil says, “Public universities are much better than private ones, but they are really hard to get into, so there’s a bit of a controversy there because most public students have come from private schools.” This dilemma, according to an article titled “Brazil has tuition-free college – but it comes with a catch” published on Business Insider on 25 June 2015, is a real struggle for many students as the majority of students who are accepted into these institutions are from wealthy or middle-class families who were able to send their children to private schools, thereby leaving very few places for poorer students who went to public schools.

In order to address this issue the Brazilian government has implemented a type of quota system for its public universities where 50% of its new students need to come from public schools and the racial distribution of the incoming students must correspond to the racial distribution of the area.

Pereira, however, says that she does not believe that only the wealthy benefit from the system as “…universities around here [Brazil] offer many scholarships”.

In Germany, undergraduate degrees are free in all public universities for both German and international students, but universities do charge an administration fee. In Denmark and Sweden free education only applies to citizens and students from within the EU.

Lauren Möller-Lindvist, a visual communication graduate in Denmark, says that there are both positive and negative consequences as a result of free education: “…free education means that even if your whole family isn’t [in] any way academic – you can still end up as a professor”. However, she adds that “…a lot of young people are failing to see the privilege and the opportunity they have”. She further said that many of her classmates “…dropped out and said the reason [was] because they don’t feel like a course (or even high school) is really [for] them.” Additionally, Möller-Lindvist said that the culture around universities in Denmark is seen as “a means of fulfilment and not as a means to an end”, therefore “many people end up switching maybe once or twice a year before finally settling on something and you tend to start later”.

Ole Ziessler, a mechanical engineering student at a university in Dresden, has noticed many of the same issues as in Denmark, such as students rapidly changing their degrees. He says that living costs are still an issue and that “parents are responsible by law to pay these [living expenses]”.

Quraysha Ismail-Sooliman, a freelance journalist, administrator and researcher at the Centre for Mediation in Africa, and a doctoral candidate in the UP Faculty of Law, says that emulating a foreign country’s free education model would be “naïve” as “[a free education model] must deal with the realities that South African’s face, have to deal with and are exposed to”. She further states that NSFAS can be “improved and tweaked to start a commitment of realising a system of funding that can ultimately make ‘free education’ a reality”.

Prof. Daniel Bradlow, a member of the South African Research Chairs Initiative, and Professor of International Developmental Law and African Economic Relations, has a very clear opinion on a complete loan-free education system. He says, “I do not think that it is possible to have [a] model that is loan-free for everyone. However, it is certainly possible to have a model that includes grants for the poorest students, particularly those that choose to go into low paying but important disciplines like teaching [and] nursing.”

Prof. Bradlow further adds that there are ways that the South African government can mitigate the challenges faced by governments who offer free education by following a few principles. Firstly, “students should have to contribute to the funding of their education but they should only do so when they can afford to do so,” and “the loans that students get should cover tuition plus living expenses so that every student can afford living expenses while [being] a student”.

Illustration: Lené Stroebel.

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