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Umsebenzi Online

Volume 3, No. 17, 1 September 2004

In this Issue:


Red Alert

Youth and student action to lower costs of higher education must be consolidated and taken forward

By Blade Nzimande, SACP General Secretary

The SACP has just emerged from a successful Central Committee meeting characterised by a very frank and detailed class analysis of the first ten years of our democracy. A Central Committee discussion document will be released within the next few weeks, and all our structures, our allies, the mass democratic movement and progressive intellectuals will be invited to engage with and debate this paper.

The Central Committee was informed that the South African Students Congress (SASCO) has joined the Financial Sector Campaign Coalition in which our Party has been playing a leading role. The SACP welcomes and supports SASCO's mass action today, 1 September 2004, to highlight the issue of student funding, and the plight of poor students in particular.

Soon after taking office in 1994, our democratic government established the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which has already disbursed more than R1bn in loans for students. However, experience from our first decade of freedom shows that, despite progressive government intervention, many poor students still face exclusions and many other difficulties, even if they have been enrolled. These problems include an inability to access student loans from banks because of a lack of collateral, high interest rates on student loans, and the blacklisting of students by the credit bureaus. In addition, many students continue to experience problems in opening bank accounts, with the obscenely high bank charges. Together with the FSCC and SASCO the SACP commits to raise these matters in both the NEDLAC discussions, as well as through sustained common action directed against the banks.

The question of access to higher education by poor students is of fundamental importance in redressing an enduring legacy of apartheid. There are a number of dimensions to this problem. The first aspect is the highly differential costs of courses and degrees across the higher education spectrum. What makes a law degree at Wits almost twice as expensive as at Fort Hare. The cost of higher education, particularly in the historically white institutions, continues to be seriously discriminatory against poor students, who are predominantly black. This matter needs to be addressed as part of the current restructuring of higher education.

Another impediment for poor students is the cost of textbooks, including the taxation on books. We are pleased that the FSCC and SASCO have agreed to explore the establishment of student co-operative bookshops and parallel importation of books in order to lower costs.

The ratio of the loan and bursary components in the NSFAS must also be reconsidered. It is important that SASCO is raising this matter again for debate, in the light of continuing problems with the costs and repayment of loans, particularly in the case of unemployed graduates.

The FSCC and SASCO have also agreed to explore, in the medium term, the possibility of student housing co-operatives. There are a number of interesting international experiences, including in Britain, in this respect that need to be considered.

An important matter that must be taken up with the banks is that of access to loans by poor students. It is indeed a fundamental problem that those that require student loans - precisely because they cannot afford higher education otherwise - are at the same time expected to provide collateral. This is an important aspect of access to finance and credit for the poor, a matter that the SACP and the FSCC have been struggling for through our banks' campaign. It is important that the funds that the financial industry is setting aside for human resource development factor in this critical dimension.

A related problem is that of access to affordable banking services for students, particularly those from poor backgrounds. Students from poor backgrounds cannot be expected to pay the same bank charges as those from wealthier backgrounds. We have to take this matter up directly with the banks, as their charges are amongst the highest in the world, as the survey undertaken by the National Treasury and the Reserve Bank revealed last week. The universal access to banking services, as we have been demanding must take into account the plight of poor students in the higher education sector. It is for these reasons, amongst others, that we have been insisting that the financial industry must not secretly finalise its targets for spending on infrastructure and human resource development without effective consultation with the workers and communities.

The SASCO campaign raises matters that go beyond funding for higher education. This question must be placed at the centre of the massive restructuring underway in higher education. The debate cannot be limited to which institutions are merging with which. Restructuring must focus principally on access and on the relevance of academic programmes to the national developmental effort. SASCO should broaden its current campaign carrying it into the current debates on the trajectory of the higher education restructuring processes.

In the light of these problems the immediate challenge for government is to urgently institute an investigation into the cost of higher education in South Africa, and its implications for access, particularly for poor students. This must be done in the same manner as government's investigation of the costs of schooling, which identified several other 'hidden' costs, particularly for the poor, including cost of transport and school uniforms.

The task for the progressive student movement is clear. SASCO's campaign is an important platform to rebuild an active student movement capable of impacting on current higher education restructuring. The campaign is also a concrete basis for cementing the relationship between SASCO and the YCL, around concrete struggles facing our youth, rather than around abstract debates and opportunistic posturing. This action by SASCO should also seek to give direction and leadership to the wave of sporadic protests on various campuses. Critical to the success of these struggles will be the development and deepening of relations between workers and students on each campus across the higher education spectrum.

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