In his mid-term budget speech, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced that R17-billion would be allocated to post-school education over the next three years. Higher education has seen the most growth in funding from the national budget, but students say their demands are not being addressed.

As Gordhan concluded his speech at Parliament, students protesting outside the gates were running from police who had released stun grenades and fired rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. 

Ihsaan Bassier, a graduate student in economics from the University of Cape Town (UCT), had moved with fellow protesters to Cape Town Station. In the bedlam, Bassier had heard Gordhan’s plan for tertiary education, but said that the minister in no way addressed free education.

“To be honest it’s exactly what we expected. He’s not doing a bad job in terms of a gradualist approach to things, but there’s just no way that it’s matched up to the demands of students. 

“The calls are for more radical changes to the budget,” Bassier told the Mail & Guardian via telephone.

The good, the bad and more protests 
Thousands of students had picketed outside Parliament where Gordhan and Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas greeted the protesters and accepted their memorandum of demands. 

Not all students reacted positively to Gordhan, however, with some heckling the minister after he left without addressing them. Gordhan veered from his prepared speech as he stood at the podium in Parliament to make specific mention of the students and their parents, emphasising that he heard their concerns.

“We understand the concerns of parents and students; we will do everything possible, we do not want them to lose the 2016 academic year,” he said.

The allocation towards higher education has grown in recent years, to the point where higher education expenditure is now second only to debt. Bassier said that, in some ways, Gordhan had done a good job in his budget allocation but that it failed to make an impact on eradicating financial exclusion.

“Bolstering to the NSFAS and contributing to universities above inflation, those are big steps, but they’re not addressing the fundamental problem. 

“Even if you take the whole three-year plan, it still doesn’t reach anywhere near a situation where you don’t have hundreds of thousands of students who are financially excluded,” Bassier said.

Kefentse Mkhari, the SRC president at at the University of the Witwatersand (Wits), disagreed that providing more money to NSFAS would be a positive contribution. The student leader argued that NSFAS contributed to student debt and that the budget allocation was sorely disappointing.

“We are sorely disappointed. It’s obviously a clear indication that the government is not interested in responding to our demands,” Mkhari said.

And for the plan of action going forward?

“We are continuing to shut down universities,” Mkhari said.

UCT students have largely agreed with the model for free education students and academics at Wits have proposed to treasury. 

Gordhan confirmed that treasury had received proposals for free education and would be studying them over the coming week. 

The need for a long term plan that isn’t there 
In their free education model, Wits students and academics proposed numerous ways in which funding could be made available for free education. 

The model suggested that corporate tax, which currently sits at 28%, increase to 30% and that wealth tax should be implemented. Christie Viljoen, an economist at KPMG, said that wealth tax is possible.

“I personally think that wealth tax is quite possible, but they [government] haven’t signalled anything specific,” Viljoen said.

“It’s difficult because you would’ve thought that this is the perfect time to do it but, on the other hand, there was a strong emphasis on the current economic growth problems.  It was everywhere in that budget, so I don’t think they’d want to simply jump and overtax people.”

Viljoen said that he isn’t surprised treasury found the money for the R17-billion allocation, but that the increase in funding does not address the problems rooted in the demands for free education.

“They are sending money that way, but it’s not solving the problem. I think the simplest thing to point to is that in the budget speech the minister indicated they would need some kind of roadmap or a long-term plan to reduce tuition costs,” Viljoen said.

According to Viljoen, who sat in Parliament during the mandatory lock-up where attendees are locked inside the building until the mid-term budget is allowed to be made public, treasury “got the message all the way from the top” that higher education is to be made a priority. 

But until a long term plan emerges on how to reduce tuition costs and fund free education, students could wait years before their demands become a reality.

“It’s definitely not reacting positively to the students’ demands,” Viljoen said.

“There’s no free teritiary education next year or within the next three to four years. We need a plan before we can actually give money.”

Pessismism and the need for engagement 
As Mkhari spoke to the M&G, he was waiting inside Hillbrow police station where a student had just been taken after being arrested. 

As Bassier concluded talking, stun grenades went off as he stood outside Cape Town Station. Students have attempted to exert pressure on the government for weeks by shutting down universities and, at times, burning university infrastructure or stoning vehicles. 

Their disappointment in Gordhan’s speech and belief that it failed to address their demands leaves at least one question: what next?

“It’s hard not to take a pessimistic view in terms of the level of repression that’s happened, especially the targeting of leaders. 

“They’ve been very effective in getting leaders arrested, being able to detain them for 24 hours on no charges and then releasing them sometimes,” Bassier said

“My personal viewpoint is I think that we will be thoroughly demobilised. We are in that process right now.”

Mkhari is determined that students will continue to clampdown on universities in an effort to highlight that there needs to be a sense of urgency shown by government. 

According to Viljoen, higher education is already a priority for treasury, but the way forward might need stronger attempts at meaningful engagement.

“There needs to be mass, public, accessible engagement with the fundamental issues that are being raised. How are poor people able to earn enough for a decent living standard?” Bassier said.

“The answer of patience is no longer accessible and the current form of engagement – Parliament speeches buttressed by security and rubber bullets –needs to be re-imagined,” he concluded.