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Restless Prejudice: Is higher education a right or privilege?

Students protest for free education in Cape Town. (Photo by Shaun Swingler/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

There are about 503 institutions of higher education in South Africa. Of this number, 26 are universities. Since 1994, universities have experienced an increase in enrolments. Many factors, such as societal pressure, the dawn of democracy and access institutions previously reserved for whites, led to this increase.

A deliberate government policy made higher education accessible and available, in line with the Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 2019, about 1.2 million students enrolled for both private and public higher education in SA. Of these, 90% ended up in public higher education institutions or universities. With this said, 65% of these students enrol through contact mode, leading to lack of space and capacity.

The Education White Paper painted higher education as a broker of “life chances” and conduit for “achieving equity in the distribution of opportunity and achievement among South African citizens”. Parents and students view a university degree as a vehicle to escape the structural inequalities and poverty and a ladder of ascendency to the corporate and public sector strata.

With limited resources available to address the capacity challenges in our universities, we ask ourselves one question: “Is higher education a right or privilege?”


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