Category Archives: Higher education

My M&G article on Universities in 2017


(The above article was published in the Mail & Guardian on the 6th of January 2016 and is available in PDF here).

Students contest the status quo 

Over the last two years, universities in South Africa have become increasingly contested spaces. Student movements like RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall have categorically rejected the status quo as unacceptable and are working to reorder not only the principles that govern universities, but ultimately the principles that govern the country. Of course the first order of business is challenging our current assumptions about who should go to university, what it should look like, and who should pay for it. And on all three fronts they have been phenomenally successful. It is really quite remarkable that a loose group of students who lack a political mandate, who have not been elected by anyone, and have virtually no resources have managed to achieve so much so quickly. They have brought whole universities to their knees and prompted the creation of a Presidential Task Team. Most significantly they garnered enough support to essentially force the government to allocate an additional R17 billion to higher education in the Medium Term Budget.

About 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte famously quipped that a revolution is simply an idea which has found its bayonets. In the context of the various student movements I think it’s worthwhile to try and identify the underlying idea, its animating principle. As the student movements assemble and reassemble under different names (seemingly quite effortlessly), I think there is a leitmotif running through all of them; the unfinished business of 1994. There is a generation of young Black South Africans who feel that the terms of the negotiated settlement were unjust and let White South Africans off the hook. Dr Amos Wilson. a theoretical psychologist and social theorist, makes the logic behind this position explicit in the following quote:

“Justice requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing. The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice. If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded. And the benefits such rewards conferred on the perpetrators of injustice will continue to “draw interest,” to be reinvested, and to be passed on to their children, who will use their inherited advantages to continue to exploit the children of the victims of the injustice of their ancestors. Consequently, injustice and inequality will be maintained across generations as will their deleterious social, economic, and political outcomes.”

Thinking that the various incarnations of the student movements are primarily about universities is a mistake. RhodesMustfall was not about a statue; it was about reclamation and power and history. Similarly, the challenge today is not only about who should pay fees, but who should own the land. The discontent and anger about the ‘pay-to-play’ market system that we have – where only those who can pay for quality get it – is as much about private hospitals and Model-C schools as it is about universities. The true contested space at our universities at the moment is really about the principles that currently order our society and reimagining different ones.

Fighting for a different future

There are students in South Africa today who look at our country and refuse to accept that the way we are currently doing things is the only way they can be done. How is it that in a country with considerable wealth and resources that we still have 10 million people living on less than R10 a day? Whenever I land at Cape Town International Airport and get an aerial view of Khayelitsha, I think to myself “How the heck can we, as a country, not find a dignified solution to housing for the poor?” In Cape Town we have 400,000 people living in shacks a mere 40-minute drive from the house that sold for R290-million in Bantry Bay. We have decadent opulence living next to extreme poverty. It’s not right.

And so we come back to the contested space at universities where people have different ideas about how we get from where we are to a better future. Students associated with Black-First-Land-First argue for land expropriation without compensation. The Nobel Laureate Thomas Piketty motivates for much steeper wealth and inheritance taxes to level the playing field. The Wits SRC has proposed a once-off ‘apartheid windfall’ tax on “companies that benefited unfairly by abusing state resources” under apartheid.

But since the current discussions at universities are still centred on fees and access to university, let’s start there and think about what 2017 might hold for universities, and put some numbers on the table. Personally I think we will actually find a sustainable solution to student financing at universities, possibly even in 2017. Sizwe Nxasana – the head of the Presidential Task Team – has developed a highly sophisticated and workable model of student funding called the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) that is being trialled at seven universities this year, focussing on students studying medicine, engineering and accounting. This is essentially a public-private partnership which aims to “significantly increase the funding and resources which are made available to support students from working class families to graduate and find employment by leveraging private sector funding.” One can think of it as a three-tier model with the poorest students being fully funded with grants and the missing-middle with a combination of grants and income-contingent loans (to be repaid only if the recipient does graduate and earns above a certain amount). Then finally, those at the top that can pay fees do pay fees. While it isn’t free education for everyone – and the vanguard may therefore not accept it – if implemented properly it has a good shot at ensuring that no student is excluded from university on financial grounds. That would be a significant achievement.

Thankfully, many in the sector are now realising that needs-blind allocations to higher education – where all students are equally subsidised – are socially regressive and anti-poor. This is largely because the children of the wealthy attend fee-charging schools that give them a much better shot at qualifying for university than the children of the poor. We know that less than 1 in 10 children from the poorest 70% of households qualify to go to university compared to 1 in 2 or 3 children (40%) among the wealthiest 10% of households. And because of this, if one allocated an additional R10bn to higher-education in a blanket fashion, then about R6,8bn (68%) will end up benefitting the wealthiest 20% of South African households because it is their children who are disproportionately at university (according to two fiscal incidence studies). A recent study showed that 60% of students that qualified for university came from the 30% of high schools that charged fees. What is the point of raising revenue by additional taxes on the richest 20% only to give two thirds of that money straight back to them in the form of indirect subsidies to their children?

So if we agree that the rich should not be subsidised (usually defined as those in households with annual income of more than R600,000), how many students would need funding? Professor Servaas van der Berg’s analysis of household surveys has shown that about 60% of the current university-going population would be eligible for funding. (This assumes that income is under-captured in surveys by about 30% . Importantly, this would cover 73% of Black African university students and 30% of White university students.

While ending financial exclusion at university won’t solve the thornier issues in South Africa – about land, inequality, restitution, primary education, unemployment – it would serve as a powerful and invigorating example that things really can be different to what they are now. It would be poetic if the start of a successful campaign for a different South Africa could trace its origins to the toppling of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University. He is on Twitter @NicSpaull


Sci-Hub–>Knowledge moves forward :)


I haven’t been blogging for a while for a couple of reasons. I’ve moved to the OECD in Paris for the TJA Fellowship and will be here until the end of August. I’m working on PISA data in middle-income countries and finding some really interesting results – working paper(s) should be done by the end of the year and I’ll be back in South Africa mid-September.

In the last few months it feels like the world became a much more interesting and scary place than it was this time last year. Apart from things like Brexit and Trump, there’ve been terrorist attacks around the world showing how vulnerable big cities are (even in wealthy countries) to very small groups of people with bombs and guns. In the last two days there has been a terrorist attack in Nice (France) and yesterday a failed coup in Turkey. So I think I’ve been running low on good news for a while. Then I was reminded of Sci-Hub, which is kind of the Naptster/PirateBay of academic publishing. If you know the DOI (document object identifier) or the journal name you can usually find it on Sci-Hub. It was founded by a 22 year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan, Alexandra Elbakyan. The site provides up-to-date access to 50 million articles. In February 2016 alone there were 6 million downloads. Providing access to the world’s academic knowledge to anyone with an internet connection is absolutely amazing. It’s also something that one of the Internet’s geniuses, Aaron Swartz, seemed to be planning before his untimely death (suicide). Millions of people (myself included) have access to online journal articles, primarily through institutional access arrangements (typically universities). Having such a distributed network of people, all of whom have access means that something like this was bound to happen and is impossible to prevent. Much like downloading pirated movies or music which are here to stay. This is creative disruption in its purest form.

I think Alexandra is a hero and that Sci-Hub is here to stay. It’s bull-shit to argue that the peer-review process depends on 37% profit margins (Elsevier) or heavily gated elite journals. The logic that we must conduct research using tax-payers money, then submit and review the articles for free but that we must pay to get access to those articles is totally antiquated and perverse. This also explains why countries (such as the US) and donors (such as the Gates Foundation) are requiring that research that they fund be made available online within a year of completion.

Onward and upward…

Black graduates: 3 400 in 1986… 55 600 in 2011. Enough said :)

On the topic of the change in the number of black African graduates over the last twenty years (and the recent media hype) this study by my colleague and friend Dr Hendrik van Broekhuizen  is all that needs to be said:

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“In addition to the expansion of South Africa’s yearly graduate outputs, the nature of the policy changes which have affected the HE system over the past 25 years means that the demographic composition of South Africa’s stock of graduates has also changed radically over time. This is clearly evident when looking at changes in the racial composition of the graduates produced by the HE system each year. Figure 3.2 reveals that, while the number of White graduates produced annually has increased only moderately from about 27 500 to just over 35 000 in the past 25 years, the number of Black graduates produced has increased more than 16-fold from about 3 400 in 1986 to more than 55 600 in 2011. The implications of the racial differences in graduate output growth are simple: while the HE system produced 7.9 White graduates for each Black graduate in 1986, by 2011 it produced 1.6 Black graduates for every single White graduate. Figure 3.3 offers a similarly poignant illustration of the extent of change in the racial composition of South Africa’s stock of graduates by showing the respective racial shares of the total number of graduates produced in each year since 1986″ (p13).

From his 2013 Economic Society of South Africa paper.

Martin Gustafsson on “Higher education policy challenges”


In the past three months South African higher education has come into full focus thanks to efforts of students in #FeesMustFall, #OpenStellies, #RhodesMustFall and others. The article below was written by one of RESEP’s researchers, Dr Martin Gustafsson, and first appeared in Business Leadership South Africa’s newsletter. I’ve highlighted the sections I think are most important to note…

Higher Education Policy Challenges – Dr Martin Gustafsson

“I recall a prominent person from organised business declaring some years back at a meeting that the business sector in South Africa had essentially withdrawn from the education policy discourse to avoid conflict with government. Instead, the sector had turned its attention to easier, less controversial areas of involvement, such as partnerships with individual education institutions and bursaries for promising students. This is not a good approach. Smaller projects can make a difference, but policy matters and it is something to which business should pay more attention. Business is well placed to provide policy advice in areas where it is strong: unit costs, cost-effectiveness, trade-offs between priorities and efficient management.

What are some of the difficult policy questions in what has recently become a volatile higher education sector?

Low public spending on higher education has been in the spotlight. This spending comes to 0.6% of GDP, compared to around 1.1% for comparable countries. The problem relates more to low student numbers than low spending per student. If we use countries at South Africa’s level of development as our benchmark, UNESCO education statistics suggest that our public spending per student should be 12% higher, while the number of students should increase by 30%. Current pressures to spend more per student are justified, but this should not be allowed to slow down the growth we have been seeing in enrolments.

Of course growing the sector is not just about enrolling more students, but also about a higher ratio of graduates to enrolments. What in South Africa is referred to as low ‘throughput rates’ – essentially high levels of dropping out and repetition – are commonly considered a core problem. We would be in a better position to respond to this problem if we understood it better.

Low throughput rates are not a peculiarly South African phenomenon. Similar patterns are found in many countries, which suggests that shifting the numbers is not easy. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on dropping out at tertiary level indicates that around 53% of students enrolling for a degree in the United States do not attain the degree. The Council for Higher Education has found the figure to be a rather similar 55% in South Africa. For the OECD as a whole, however, the figure is a better 31%. My own analysis of household data suggests that the ratio of degrees obtained per year to the number of full-time equivalent students, the graduation rate is around 1:7 for South Africa and Brazil.

So what are the circumstances of around half of our university students who do not complete a degree? It is difficult to obtain an overall picture. Sample-based household surveys, such as Stats SA’s Labour Force Survey are of limited use partly because the students in question are a small percentage of the population, and because there are no questions relating to tertiary-level dropping out. Longitudinal surveys conducted by universities or faculties can tell us a bit, though they do not provide a national picture. By far the most commonly cited reason for dropping out is financial constraints. However, students’ academic results and their ability to find funding are closely linked. If their results are poor, it is more difficult to renew funding. Yet the data we have indicates that the tragedy of academically well-performing students who drop out mainly due to funding reasons is substantial. It is a tragedy for the individual, but also for the country’s development, given the skills shortfall in the labour market, and it is bad for the attainment of workplace equity targets.

The OECD report warns against an all-or-nothing approach of classifying all drop-outs as failures and a manifestation of wasted effort. Even an incomplete university education is likely to improve an individual’s wage prospects and productivity in the workplace. It is in the interests of business to advocate for and fund more rigorous research on, for instance, the relationship between wages and the actual range of higher education outcomes which includes non-completed graduates.

The policy debates should be informed by accurate estimates, which exist, of the graduate unemployment rate. This rate is relatively low, and lower than what is suggested by some figures which have been quoted, including figures from an inaccurate January 2012 article in The Economist.

An unfortunate blind spot in our strategies for expanding the university sector is the lack of attention paid to the role of private universities. Countries such as China and Brazil, which have expanded their university enrolments even faster than South Africa, have succeeded in doing so partly through carefully thought out policies governing the emergence of more private universities. Such universities need not be elite relative to public universities, and there are ways of dealing with the risk of sub-standard educational quality offered by unscrupulous institutions.

Brazil’s strategy for combatting low-quality private universities and poor quality higher education at public institutions, is unusual and fascinating. Final year undergraduate students must write, apart from examinations set by the university, a short discipline-specific nationally standardised test which allows the national authorities to gauge which universities are clearly not teaching their students the basics. Moreover, aggregate test results are publicly available, putting students and their families in a more informed position when they select a university. Marcelo Rezende, in an article in Economics of Education Review, argued that the system has helped universities to focus on producing quality graduates.

Two institutions other than the universities are critical for building a better higher education system. Problems in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme are at the core of the 2015 unrest in the sector. The recommendations of the official 2010 review report remain relevant today. Secondly, without further educational quality improvements in the schooling system, the expansion of universities will be difficult. The National Development Plan’s key strategy for improving schools, paying attention to school principals – specifically their hiring, functions, remuneration and performance contracts – is a sensible one.


On the issue of school principals I would strongly recommend following the work of Gabrielle Wills, a PhD student at RESEP who has done some very innovative and useful research on principals and leadership in South Africa. For example see her 2015 Working Paper “A profile of the labour market for school principals in South Africa” which she presented at a conference earlier this year (PPT here).