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Thursday, July 29, 2021

Why education is expensive in South Africa

Siyabonga Hadebe

Education is very expensive in South Africa. It costs a whopping R19,500 to R21,500 a year to attend an average government fee-paying school. Private schools charge anything between R50,000 and R500,000 per annum for one child. No wonder the likes of Curro and Advtech make so much money.

But who owns these private companies that are now charged with the responsibility of providing basic education in South Africa?

You must understand that the least spoken about topic in politics is the “commodification” of knowledge production in developing countries like South Africa. Access to free, quality and universal education has gained prominence in recent years following student protests at universities. However, these protests were limited in nature because they lacked a deeper understanding of the economic framework governing education as a whole, from kindergarten to tertiary level.

Young people comprise a large percentage of the South African population of just over 52 million. A huge proportion of youth go to crèches, schools, TVETs and universities. Although many people receive education from public institutions, private education is preferred by the rich and middle classes. The basic education system in urban South Africa is now practically a “servitude” for private companies. The implication of this is that most school-going kids from families that can afford go to privately owned schools.

Private companies like Curro Group, Spark, AdvTech, Pembury Lifestyle Group, etc. dominate private sector education in South Africa. All these companies promise “to address the shortcomings facing public education.” Census data indicated that only an estimated 48% of students who begin Grade 1 actually complete Grade 12, with most learners dropping out of school in Grade 10 and 11.

The JSE-listed Curro Group has schools across all nine provinces. University of Stellenbosch’s economics professor Johan Fourie says “In the past four years, its share price has tripled.” The company posted its 2016 financial year end results in March 2017, which showed a 69% increase in headline earnings to R169 million – up from R100 million recorded in 2015. Revenue saw a 27% increase to R1.76 billion whereas annual profits increased by 83% to R162 million. On the other hand, AdvTech, owner of the Crawford College and Trinity House schools posted significant growth in the same period, namely a 24% increase in revenue to R3.4 billion, with total enrolments increasing by 13%.

The profits mean that other firms are starting to notice and are entering this lucrative market.  As a result, these firms actively target the poor and the working class, which indicates that the entire South African basic education system is getting privatised.

Coronation Fund Managers, CitiGroup, Old Mutual Group, Government Employees Pension Fund (GEPF) are listed as some of the largest shareholders of Advtech. Professor Jonathan Jansen, former principal of the University of Free State, serves on a predominantly white board.

The subject of knowledge generation and at times consumption are heavily contested. The one who produces knowledge demands to be paid for his or her “work” – knowledge therefore has become a commodity like minerals, sugar or rice.

With the advent of economic neoliberalism, where markets are kings, knowledge appears to be also traded in the same space as other commodities. But the issue of the volatility of commodity prices draws so much criticism due to the impact they have on social outcomes.

For example, agricultural products are actively traded spot and derivative markets with dire consequences. In spite of the fact that this piece is about education and knowledge creation, economic madness and quest for huge profits in agriculture will be used to introduce problems of “commodification” of education and how education is currently being privatised before our eyes for the benefit of the wealthy. Under the pretext of poor public sector education, which is also privatised by school governing bodies, the private education system grows at a faster pace, and thus leaving the majority of the population destitute and without hope.

Fluctuations in the value of agricultural products lead to uncontrollable increases in food prices and gnawing hunger in the world. Hence, food security is now a great concern for many countries, both developed and under developed. In 2011, Nikolas Sarkozy commented that the French G-20 presidency prioritised food security by suggesting the removal of land and food production from the hands of speculators, and the mean machine of global corporations. In the end, the world’s leading economies dismally “failed to take the decisions needed to avert a looming global food crisis.”

Food price volatility and soaring food commodity prices remain a sad occurrence in our lives. Furthermore, rich countries cushion their agriculture and ensure sustainable food production through various economic mechanisms like subsidies to farmers and other types of “market protectionist” policies. However, poor countries do not have such capacities – hunger is on the rise because food production and land ownership are mostly under the control of foreign capital.

Large corporations are more concerned about servicing international markets and are not interested in local markets. The global economic infrastructure consisting of the World Trade Organisation and the Bretton Woods Institutions (i.e. World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund) ensure that the status quo is maintained.

The conclusion of this article is that the expansion of private education in South Africa and beyond is not so much an outcome of “poor” public education but forces of free market economics are at play. Both Advtech and Curro are presently spreading their wings to other parts of the continent, from Botswana to Kenya.

Commodification of education in Africa and elsewhere encourages entry of private capital, and growth of subtle privatisation of this important public good. Already, private schools are self-regulating through the Independent Examinations Board (IEB) and this is why Gauteng Education MEC Panyaza Lesufi expressed his frustrations by calling for a single examinations body in South Africa.





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