Recent student protests calling for free university education took many by surprise. The public’s response to student demands has been somewhat mixed. Many of us sympathised with the students. We admired their courage. We were inspired by their leadership. We appreciated the discipline that they exerted in making their voices heard. There were some who felt that the idea of free education should be qualified because the needs of students are many and varied. Still others dismissed these protests entirely, labelling student expectations as unrealistic and a crippling burden on the country’s fiscus.

Listening to the debates rage back and forth brought to mind earlier global conversations about free education and what the real impact of these commitments has actually been. Back in 2000, 164 countries gathered at the World Education Forum in Dakar, Senegal. During this meeting a framework for achieving “Education for All” was drawn up. The Dakar Framework, as it commonly became known, consisted of six targets. The second of these targets focused on universal primary education (UPE). Specifically, it stated that by 2015, all children should have access to “complete free and compulsory primary education of good quality.” Because of its broad political appeal UPE was even included as one of the United Nation’s eight Millennium Development Goals. It is one thing to target free primary education. It is quite another to remove fees at the tertiary level. But there are still relevant lessons for South Africa as we search for better ways to achieve a more equitable system of higher education.

  1. UPE targets were specific and time frames were clearly defined. One of the strengths of the UPE movement is that the goals were spelled out very clearly. It wasn’t enough to make a general call for free education. The quality of educational delivery needed to be guaranteed. UPE goals were also accompanied by a time frame. In 2000, the deadline for achieving free primary education was set at 2015. Marginalised groups were identified so that they could be given special mention when monitoring progress. For example, it made sense to focus on girls because the education of girls had been side-lined for decades in many parts of the developing world.

  1. Increased access to schooling resulted in greater strain on educational resources. As many as 34 million children, mostly from developing countries, have had the opportunity to attend school because of local policies inspired by the Dakar Framework. However, governments have had to grapple with how to make the best use of available resources so that they keep up with swelling enrolments. Overcrowded classrooms, lack of teaching materials and poorly trained teachers were common features of the early stages of UPE and remain a concern in many countries. And with greater strain of resources, reducing wastage became a matter of urgency. Uganda’s response was to increase transparency about the flow of resources. When fund were transferred to school districts this information was published in newspapers and broadcast on radio. Government primary schools were also expected to share information about the funds that they received by a school noticeboards. To their credit, many developing countries, including South Africa, regularly participate in local and international assessments to monitor the quality of educational delivery as access to schooling expands.

  1. UPE commitments are supported by policies that target the most vulnerable. Although abolishing school fees was the cornerstone of UPE, many governments recognised that much more needed to be done if access to education was to be extended to the poorest populations. A host of policies have been introduced to support increases in enrolment. In parts of Latin America, poor families are given cash transfers in exchange for ensuring that their children attend school. These incentive programs have proven to be very effective.
  1. There were some unintended consequences on the groups that were meant to benefit the most. In spite of global support, increased education budgets and periodic monitoring, it is also very clear that more needs to be done if UPE is to be fully achieved. In 2012, there were still 58 million children of school going age who were out of school. Repetition and school dropout remain serious problems even in countries that have made remarkable gains. The net effect is that many children who enrol in Grade 1 will not finish their primary school education. Removing school fees, without addressing other hidden schooling costs has meant that increases in enrolment can be severely eroded. For poor households, being expected to pay for stationery, uniforms, meals and transport renders free education almost meaningless. Even more seriously, if wealthier households are equal beneficiaries of free public education, they then have additional funds to invest in their children’s education. This usually takes the form of extra tuition (often provided by teachers at state schools who are desperate to supplement their income). Alternatively, wealthier parents opt out of government-owned schools altogether and turn to private schools. Again the result is that gaps in educational outcomes that should have narrowed as a result of UPE have actually end up widening even further.

As discussions around free university education continue to unfold in South Africa, it is worthwhile taking stock of previous experiences in abolishing school fees albeit at a different schooling level. The story of free schooling elsewhere teaches us that finding ways to make university fees affordable will first and foremost involve making it clear who the beneficiaries of ‘no fees’ will actually be. And although removing the burden of tuition costs is a tremendous step in the right direction, without additional support for other educational costs, it will be impossible for many poor university students to complete their studies.

Absolute clarity is needed when it comes to time frames so that there are no doubts about exactly how and when fee removal is to be implemented. It is not enough to freeze fee increases for 2016 without expressing a long term vision for achieving affordable tertiary education. And the longer it takes to communicate a plan, the more uncertainty is created. What is filling the void at the moment are alarmingly varied estimates about what the cost of free education is projected to be, often without qualification about who is covered and what assumptions have been made in arriving at these estimates.

There also needs to be on-going support for tertiary institutions so that education of the highest quality can be delivered as demand for higher education continues to expand. Equally important is monitoring whether resources allocated for fee policies are administered efficiently. Without a doubt, the education landscape will continue to shift. We cannot afford to add to the three million young South Africans not in education, employment or training. The potential beneficiaries of no-fee policies are students who have overcome remarkable odds to gain acceptance at a tertiary institution. They deserve every possible opportunity to complete their university training.

Tia Linda Zuze is a Senior Research Specialist in the Education and Skills Development Research Programme of the HSRC.