With the South African government looking at implementing a free tertiary education system, what can we learn from neighbouring Zimbabwe? Zimbabwe offered free primary and high school education from1980 to 2015. Although this isn't free tertiary education, South Africa and other African countries can still learn about how this can be achieved and implemented sustainably.
During Robert Mugabe's tenure as president and the political unrest that was experienced during the later years of his presidency, countless Zimbabwean professionals left Zimbabwe to search for career opportunities in other African countries. Three years ago, there was an estimated 1 million Zimbabweans living in South Africa’s Gauteng Province alone. Skilled professionals were often underpaid and forced to take menial jobs in order to make ends meet and support their families back in Zimbabwe.
What can we deduce from this?
Lesson 1 – Quality of Education
The WEF 2014 report rated the quality of Zimbabwe's Educational system as the second best in Africa and it also ranked fifth on the continent for maths and science. In both instances Zimbabwe ranked ahead of South Africa. According to Nation master ratings Zimbabwe ranks higher in terms of the percentage of total government expenditure on education.
One has to consider that once something is made 'free' people tend to question its value. As a minimum measure South Africa would need to increase government funding to account for what students would have been paying to maintain the quality of education.
Lesson 2 – Return on investment
With free education one has to bear in mind that “free education” is a long term investment on governments part. There's a responsibility to maintain political and economic stability, so that the country retains its educated masses to ensure that they contribute to the country's economy.
Lesson 3 – Creating Opportunities
Systems need to be put in place that allow for graduates or the students who benefit from the free education to actually have job opportunities upon completion of their studies. It's equally important to encourage the growing voice that's calling for a more entrepreneurial focus in schools and tertiary institutions, so that in the absence of job opportunities, the graduates can still create jobs, not just for themselves but for others as well.
Lesson 4 – Paying it forward
I recently read an interesting article about the free education debate in South Africa where the writer was calling for a discussion inciting the recipients of “free tertiary education” to have some obligation to give back to their respective communities. He mentioned that there should be an element of social consciousness, where the “freely educated” have an understanding of what it means to pay it forward.
End of Class
How can we structure free education in a way that's sustainable, meets the required skills shortage whilst also ensuring that the recipients of the free education do not take the education for granted? I think prior to implementing free tertiary education, the relevant quality measures need to be agreed on to ensure that the quality of the education isn't comprised. The ideal is an Africa where every child has access to free quality education within a socioeconomic structure that allows them to bloom into a productive member of society.