Education Funding

Critics Say School Fees In South Africa Widen Inequities

By Karla Scoon Reid — November 06, 2002 7 min read
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There’s no lathe or router in Altmont Technical High School’s woodshop. Nor any other equipment for that matter. So students here sit in a barren Soweto classroom drawing models they hope to build one day in another school’s woodshop.

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Stoves and sinks fill Eldoraigne High School’s classroom kitchen about 45 miles north of Soweto. Students wearing white chef hats and aprons beat eggs in a bowl, practicing to become cooks in the school’s campus restaurant in Centurion one day.

Here in South Africa, the parents of students at both schools must pay a price for their children’s public education—annual fees set by each school. To many, that price is too high and is harmful to this “rainbow” nation’s education future.

As the “new” South Africa forges ahead with rebuilding and transforming its education system following the end of apartheid in 1994, school fees have emerged as a highly controversial issue—one that resonates in many developing countries around the world.

Students at a well-equipped school in Centurion learn to cook.
—Karla Scoon Reid

Such fees are regarded by some South Africans as exacerbating a problem-plagued national system of education funding that falls short of meeting even the most basic needs of the nation’s historically disadvantaged students. Most of those students are black children, who make up roughly 90 percent of South Africa’s 11 million precollegiate students.

“Education should be free,” said Elijah Bobane, a passionate 18-year-old student at Altmont. “It’s helping us to survive. You can’t survive if you’re not educated.”

But to many education officials and observers here, school fees are a necessary financial tool as the government labors to address the severe education inequities—crumbling classrooms and insufficient textbooks—that are reminders of apartheid’s hateful legacy. The government, they say, hasn’t the money to bring all schools up to adequate standards.

A coalition of activists, researchers, educators, and lawyers is now using school fees as a rallying cry for an effort they hope will spur more substantive improvements to South Africa’s ailing schools.

The Education Rights Project’s goal is to ensure that all children, especially the nation’s poor youngsters, have access to a free basic education. In addition to school fees, the group plans to address the dearth of proper school buildings and teaching resources; the hardships experienced by rural students; and the sexual harassment of and violence to female students.

“There’s certainly a lot of frustration,” said Salim Vally, one of the key organizers of the coalition. “The right to education based in [the South African] Constitution is really meaningless for a vast number of students.”

‘Keep Going On’

The Center for Applied Legal Studies and the Education Policy Unit at the University of Witwatersrand, located here in Johannesburg, formed the Education Rights Project this year. The project will use research, social mobilization, advocacy, and litigation to tackle its causes.

Katarina Tomaševski, the special rapporteur on the right to education in the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said it is possible to eliminate school fees, noting that Uganda and Tanzania abolished them in recent years.

Ms. Tomaševski, who spoke at a recent event in Johannesburg marking the coalition’s work, called the day historic: “The ERP is part of a growing network that is trying to make education a real right in many places in the world.”

A woman makes school lunch in Atteridgeville, a poor township.
—Karla Scoon Reid

In a reversal of position, the World Bank is strengthening its opposition to school fees because countries that charge them can’t ensure that poor children still have access to school, said Robert S. Prouty, the bank’s lead education specialist.

“Nobody is trying to keep poor children out of school ... but the mitigation strategies in sub-Saharan Africa have always failed,” Mr. Prouty said in a telephone interview from Bamako, Mali, last week.

From the poor to the resource-rich, school fees are part of the fabric of South African schools today. All schools charge annual fees per student, ranging from 50 to 6,000 Rand. (One U.S. dollar equals about 10 Rand.)

At Altmont Technical High School, only 10 percent of the all-black 1,060-student enrollment can afford the 50 Rand fee.

That leaves little to bolster the school’s budget for lab equipment and textbooks. Science teachers borrow Bunsen burners from neighboring schools. And each classroom is assigned 10 textbooks to share.

It can be defeating at times, acknowledged Principal Joe Molefe. Still, he urges his staff members to “use what we have and keep going on.”

In Centurion, Eldoraigne High School is among the previously all-white schools that benefited from the inequitable funding system during the years of rule by the country’s white minority. But no more.

Eldoraigne Principal Frank Roos explained that the school receives less government support for nonpersonnel costs because most of his students are from affluent or middle-class families.

The 4,000 Rand fee helps pay for 20 additional teachers, which enables the school to maintain the high academic standards it values for its 1,550 students. They are taught in Afrikaans, the native language of most white South Africans.

Recognizing the nation’s vast education inequities, parents pay willingly, according to Mr. Roos.

“The government,” he said, “doesn’t have a solution to the problem.”

Segregation Tactic?

In the late 1990s, the new South African government began equalizing allocations to schools. Moreover, poor schools received a greater share of government funding for nonpersonnel expenses, such as facilities and textbooks. But those costs make up less than 15 percent of school budgets.

Amid concerns that middle-class and wealthy parents would abandon public schools, and that the national government in Pretoria would have to increase its education budget substantially, legislation and regulations were adopted clearing the way for schools to charge fees.

Students at Eldoraigne High School in Centurion, South Africa, prepare meals in their well-equipped classroom kitchen.
—Karla Scoon Reid

South African laws give school governing bodies, which are controlled by parents, the authority to set the fees by a majority vote of parents. Parents who can’t afford the fees can appeal to their school governing boards for exemptions, but it appears that few do.

Now, some people, including rights-project members, believe that the fees are becoming a way to deny poor black children access to schools in more affluent, predominantly white neighborhoods, which is illegal.

Daria Roithmayr, an associate professor of law at the University of Illinois who wrote a paper on school fees for the project, contends that the fees violate the South African Constitution, which guarantees the basic right to education. School fees also contradict international law, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human-rights treaty that requires governments—South Africa’s among them—to make primary education “free” for all, she added.

Ms. Roithmayr, who was a visiting professor at the University of Pretoria, said any gains achieved by the government’s new education funding formula have been erased because the fees re-create racial inequalities.

“Black and white still matter in ways the government has to pay attention to,” she asserted.

Another Direction

Addressing the worst fiscal effects of apartheid without raiding historically advantaged schools requires a delicate juggling act, said Duncan Hindle, a deputy director-general for the national Department of Education. And because no significant increases in education funding will be forthcoming, he said, school fees are a much-needed resource.

During a meeting in the Pretoria offices of the Education Department, Mr. Hindle argued that judging the entire education system on the fewer than 3 percent of the nation’s schools that charge high fees is misguided—a point of view shared by other education observers. Some are wondering if the rights group is missing the mark.

The group has incorrectly diagnosed the problems facing South Africa’s education system, contended Nick Taylor, the chief executive officer of the Joint Education Trust.

Mr. Vally, the project organizer and a senior education researcher at the University of Witwatersrand, “is of the school which would spend us out of trouble, and in my view, he would spend us into a ditch,” Mr. Taylor added.

Instead, Mr. Taylor said, the focus should be on pursuing action against government and school officials who misappropriate funds and in building the capacity of education systems to spend money efficiently. That’s the main goal of the trust, a Johannesburg-based partnership of private companies and community organizations.

But the Education Rights Project argues that examining school fees, along with the cost of transportation and uniforms for parents, will create more public awareness about the poor quality of South Africa’s schools, and thus launch a new social movement.

“This is the moment,” Mr. Vally said, “when the limits of policy and implementation have been reached.”

Coverage of international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Critics Say School Fees In South Africa Widen Inequities


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