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Higher education – right, privilege or common sense

While my previous blog post was not, strictly speaking, purely about the student protests that continue to liven up up South Africa, it did spark some excellent conversation on my Facebook wall in that regard, and some of those conversations did raise an additional reasonable question – is “higher education”, and for that matter any education, a human right or merely a privilege afforded to those who can earn it, borrow it, get it for free (from a family member or sponsor), or possibly steal it?

On the one hand, it turns out, access to further education is presented as a right  – not a privilege – in our constitution. Right now, whether or not you agree, it is a requirement by law that the government enable and facilitate access to further education. On the other hand, ‘further education’ is not necessarily the same as ‘higher education’. On probably a different finger of the other hand, access to education is not the same as education – the implication is not that the government should pay for everyone’s education, but that it actively remove those barriers to education that can be removed. And on the, ahem, other other hand, it can be quite difficult to separate where providing access to education ends and providing actual education starts.

This article provides a better analysis than I could of the implications of the constitution for education in South Africa.

But simply because the constitution says it is so, does not necessarily mean it should be so. Laws are not, by definition, necessarily fair, just or good. And even if the law says that people should have access to education, the question remains of what is a reasonable commitment by the government to make that right accessible. On the one extreme, the government could cut all educational spending and make everyone have to pay for everything themselves (beginning at primary school), which in theory doesn’t stop anyone from having access to education but in practice bars most of us (unsubsidised schooling, even primary, is EXPENSIVE).

Maybe it’s obvious, but the government – most governments – already subsidise education at all levels including tertiary, so asking whether government should pay for people’s studies is the wrong question…the question is one of how much they – and ultimately taxpayers – should pay. In response to the suggestion that taxpayers should not have to subsidise, say, tertiary education, one must remember that the majority of taxpayers with children send their children to schools that are subsidised by the tax money of citizens without children. And employees at companies receive training which is also subsidised by other taxpayer’s money. So again the question is not one of whether government (specifically, taxpayers) should fund education, but of how much.

When all is said and done, though, arguments against tax-funded education come down to either resentment that one person should get for free what another person has had to earn the hard way, or a belief that people should get what they’ve earned (and not be entitled to what other people have earned), or the fear that the harder some people work, the more other people will stop working and happily absorb the fruits of the hard working people’s labour (through grants and, er, free education).

I understand those arguments, and in absolute terms they hold true – nobody should have a right to that which they are not prepared to earn. In response to the very literal question, “should I have to pay for someone else’s education?”, the very literal answer is  “no.” And by implication, the response to the very literal question, “should people receive a free education?”, the answer must also be, “no” because if nobody can be forced to pay for it, then there isn’t any money available to pay for it.

But a very slightly different question is, “should I pay for it anyway?”, and the answer to that is, “Probably, yes.” I can think of four completely different reasons, though I will only cover two of them.

The first reason why one might pay for someone else’s education, which I will not cover, is compassion.

The second reason, which others can and do cover far better than I could, is social justice – if people should have a right to what they earn, they should also not have to service debt they didn’t accumulate.

The third reason is that educated people make life better for the people around them.

The fourth reason is that we all sort of pay for everything anyway – shared burdens are why people live (and are more effective) in groups and not alone (not that you could find much space to be alone anymore).

More brains, more happy

Balanced (i.e. not grossly unequal) and educated societies are stronger (citation needed?). While free tertiary education is by no means a hallmark of (or exclusive to) successful developed countries, many – including Germany, France, Sweden, Norway and Finland – offer free or cheap tertiary education. Sometimes they even provide it to foreigners, because having people who can do educated work more than pays for the cost of educating them. Interestingly, Germany and South Africa (amongst others probably) have mass student protests for free education in common.

It is well known and frequently lamented that the majority of the tax burden in South Africa rests on a small minority. More educated citizens means more taxpayers, more shoppers, a stronger economy and more people to make and build and invent stuff. Fewer people with no education and no job means fewer people forced out of desperation to beg and steal and shoot for a living.

South Africa has a skills shortage, while unemployment is rampant – there are lots of jobs, and lots of people, but not a lot of overlap between jobs and people who know how to do them. Cheap (or free) education contributes to the solution.

Eskom can’t keep it plants running because there aren’t enough engineers? Education. Hospitals understaffed? Education. Local Department of Home Affairs official has no idea what he is doing? Education. I don’t have a reference but overheard recently on radio that South Africa has a chronic shortage of cardiologists. Want to guess a good way to address that? Education. And healthier eating.

I wonder – though I won’t pretend this is a good application of logic – how many cures for cancer, or plans for renewable energy sources, or marvellous scientific breakthroughs, reside in the brains of people who will never have the education available to them to unlock those ideas. Of course, someone with the cure for cancer in their brain may just be smart enough to earn their own education in spite of everything…but then again, a thousandth of a cure may lie in each of a thousand uneducated brains.

And finally, my personal favourite reason for more education: more educated people means fewer inane posts on Facebook.  (Just kidding). (Not really).

Basically…the more educated people there are, the better off we all are, and that is something worth paying for.

Because that’s how a country WORKS!

The second reason why I think paying for education should be a group effort is that a country is a group effort. I have yet to report a crime to the police (lucky me) – so presumably I shouldn’t have to contribute tax rands to the police force. Or the fire department (lucky me, again). Or…no. Because one of the principles of the group effort that is a country is that I pay for some things I don’t need, but in return, everyone else helps me pay for things I do need but would be too expensive to afford alone.

Insurance is similar. In case my car is stolen, I pay a paltry amount (relative to the value of the car) to an insurance company, who will then replace my car in the event of calamity. The difference between what I have paid in insurance and what it costs to replace the car comes from others whose cars were not stolen. And the system works because many more people have cars than people have cars that are stolen, but everyone who has a car, has a car that COULD be stolen (bad example in South Africa, maybe).

And police, firemen and insurance companies are things that can only work when sufficient people contribute. As a citizen of a country, I pay for many things I don’t use, and use many things I don’t pay for. Education is already one of those things (that I use, or pay for, or both) – it is hasty to suggest I shouldn’t have to at all.

In closing, I will concede my argument as presented here is one of principle – I argue that we should not resent in principle the increased affordability of education to people other than those who specifically pay for it. The practical implementation in South Africa today is quite another thing – the students (and universities) say they can’t afford it. The taxpayers say THEY can’t afford it. Blade says he definitely can’t afford it. But I think that, if we can progress to the point where we acknowledge it is something worth affording, we can make progress in finding a solution.

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