JOHANNESBURG—From one side of the highest levels of the University of Witwatersrand administration building stretch the lush green neighborhoods of this city’s wealthy, mostly white, professional class.

From the other: the distant, ugly brown piles of toxic waste left by more than a century of gold-mining, around which huddle townships crowded with poor and less well-educated blacks.

It’s a stark and symbolic contrast. And one of the best views of it is from the vestibule outside the 11th-floor office of the university’s chief executive, where uniformed security guards are posted.

The guards are a dramatic reminder of how violent protests have become over who gets to go to college in South Africa and the escalating cost of that education. And while the underlying issues of price and access based on wealth and race almost exactly mirror those in the United States and other places, nowhere else in the world has the right to a higher education moved so passionately and quickly to the forefront of the political stage.

University administrators have been punched and taken hostage, buildings set afire, riot police called in, the higher-education minister burned in effigy, campuses shut down or placed under curfew, and exams delayed. Students have been shot with stun grenades and rubber bullets. One died when a car plowed into a demonstration.

And Adam Habib, the president of Witwatersrand, warns that, at a time when a quality university education is both universally essential for many jobs and unaffordable to many people, this may be a harbinger of what’s ahead in other countries.

“South Africa is not unique. It’s just the most acute manifestation of a global conflict that’s emerging,” said the U.S.-educated Habib, who in one high-profile incident was ejected from a church by angry students holding a “peace meeting” he said he was invited to attend.

The parallels between the problems in South Africa and those in the United States and elsewhere are inescapable. Both have seen their governments investing less in higher education while students and families struggle to pay more. Many of the poorest end up at campuses with low success rates while the wealthy and white have access to the best universities.

In South Africa, this has bubbled over into turmoil, something local experts chalk up to the relatively recent triumph of the fight against apartheid (which is still fresh in collective memory) and frustration that not all the promises politicians made then have been kept.

A man is pushed against the transparent shield of a police officer dressed in riot gear.
Students protesting at the University of Witwatersrand (Ihsaan Haffejee)

But Habib and others say it’s only a matter of time before the same thing flares up everywhere.

“We’re simply the example of what is to come in other countries unless something is done,” he said. “It’s an accident of history that allowed all of these same issues in the United States to emerge in South Africa at such a pitch.”

The South African protests began as something else entirely. As in the United States, where activists have called on colleges and universities to strip the names and likenesses of slaveholders and segregationists from campuses, South African students started in 2015 to demand the removal of relics of earlier times.

A principal target was a statue at the heart of the University of Cape Town of Cecil Rhodes, a British colonial prime minister who considered South Africa’s native blacks “in a state of barbarism” and “a subject race.” The crusade, called “Rhodes Must Fall” by the students, was likened to the U.S. Black Lives Matter movement and ended successfully in April 2015 with the statue being carted away to a warehouse.

Fresh from that victory, and with the ill-timed announcement of a sharp spike of as much as 12 percent in university fees—meaning, effectively, tuition—students in South Africa didn’t stop there. They redirected their attention beginning in the fall of 2015 to not only stopping the price increase, but also to making college altogether free. The “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign gave way to “Fees Must Fall.”

The government has so far responded to the escalating discord with a one-year freeze followed by a slight scaling back in the annual rate of increase in tuition; the convening of a Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training; and a vague promise from South African President Jacob Zuma to “give direction on the way forward” by June.

But while the protests have quieted, they haven’t stopped. And rises in tuition continue to outpace inflation at the public universities that enroll the vast majority of students in South Africa. At Witwatersrand, or “Wits,” it’s up another 8 percent for the semester that just began, and the university concedes that some students couldn’t afford to register. For those whose families earn 600,000 rand a year or less (about $46,000), the government covered the increase and the university is letting some pay late. The average annual income here is the equivalent of $10,505, the government reports.

“At the heart of the conflict is that young people don’t feel they have the same opportunities as their parents,” said Habib, who has master’s and doctoral degrees from the City University of New York and also chairs the board of the national universities association, Universities South Africa. “We’re undergoing a generational conflict. And this is a global conflict.”

As in the rest of the world, the question is what to do about it.

Politicians in South Africa and elsewhere have helped create this problem, in part, by portraying higher education as the principal route to a better life, said Seán Muller, an economist at the University of Johannesburg. Not surprisingly, this has resulted in huge increases in enrollment. Since just after the end of apartheid in 1995, the number of students at South African universities has more than doubled from 380,000 to nearly a million.

Nations with emerging economies including Brazil, Chile, and Turkey saw the number of students at their universities jump by more than 50 percent in the same general period, according to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. OECD countries overall experienced a 16 percent rise in enrollment. In the United States since 1995, enrollment has swelled 48 percent, from 12.2 million to nearly 18 million.

“Are we actually admitting too many students to university? Yes, we probably are,” said Muller, who previously worked in the South African Parliament on finance issues. “Politicians and policymakers are scared about the fact that you’ve got this bulge [in the number of young people] and a very high unemployment rate, and that that could lead to instability. One way of giving people hope is to admit more of them to universities.”

But the same politicians haven’t been providing the money needed to keep pace with this growth. Even as enrollment is up, spending on all levels of education is down as a percentage of government expenditures everywhere, the World Bank reports. And that means students and their families are paying much, much more, and often being forced to borrow toward the educations they’ve been told are indispensable to them.

The portion of public-university budgets covered by the government in South Africa has fallen from nearly half in 2000 to 40 percent now, while the share paid by students and their families is up from less than a quarter to nearly a third, according to the consulting firm PwC South Africa. Government cuts combined with increases in enrollment have fueled double-digit annual increases in fees and a more than 30 percent jump in student debt.

“That’s when we got angry,” Jeremiah Lelosa, who is studying toward a master’s degree at Wits in civil engineering, said as he walked past a police car and a riot truck with gun ports still stationed on the Wits campus.

Government funding per student fell 1.1 percent per year in South Africa between 2000 and 2010, the Quality Council for Higher Education found, and fees rose 2.5 percent per year during that time before rocketing into the double digits.

“We’ve been unable to pay it for two years,” said Koketso Bogosi, a third-year student who was wandering the Wits campus looking anxious during registration week.

Bogosi hopes to be a teacher, but she has siblings to support, her mother’s out of work, and she didn’t know how she’d cover her $2,475 annual tuition—the cheapest at a university where the prices range, by major, up to $4,859—and couldn’t get any answers about financial aid.

For her part, Bogosi’s friend and classmate Nqobile Mdluli said, “I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to continue.” She said she understands the need for fees. But, cupping her forehead, Mdluli said: “They’re too much. They … are ... too ... much.”

Two women sit with linked arms on brick steps outside a stately building with columns.
Koketso Bogosi and Nqobile Mdluli (Ihsaan Haffejee)

In the United States, too, states cut funding by 23 percent per student, on average, in the five years after the recession, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities calculates. And while spending is slowly rebounding, according to the Center for the Study of Education Policy at Illinois State University, it’s rising at only slightly more than half the inflation rate, meaning university budgets continue to fall behind.

Largely in response to this, tuition and fees in the United States have increased 38 percent at private and 141 percent at public universities and colleges since 2000, when adjusted for inflation, the College Board reports.

“If you’re trying to give hope where maybe there isn’t hope, you’re going to overload the universities while underfunding them,” Muller said.

As in the United States, the rising prices in South Africa also mean a deep and widening divide between who gets a higher education and who doesn’t, based on race and income.  

South Africa is 80 percent black but only 16 percent of black South Africans go to college, compared to 55 percent of whites, the public Council of Higher Education in South Africa reports. In a country where the government says that 46 percent of the population earned the equivalent of $575 or less in 2014, the last year for which the figure is available, a year’s tuition at Wits costs from $2,475 to $4,859, depending on the major. The unemployment rate is nearly 27 percent, according to the government—and nearly twice as high for people 15 to 24.

Nor has financial aid in either country kept pace. The average amount provided per student in South Africa through its National Student Financial Aid Scheme is far less than the amount each has to pay in fees, a government report found. The same is true of U.S. federal Pell Grants, which research by the higher-education policy expert Sara Goldrick-Rab shows cover barely 30 percent of the cost of college—down from a peak of 75 percent.

One result of this is that, just as higher-income students in the United States go to the most selective private and flagship public universities while their lower-income counterparts make do with community colleges and regional public universities, lower-income and nonwhite students in South Africa are more likely to end up at the pre-apartheid black-only universities, which are cheaper but have fewer resources, often inferior facilities, and lower success rates. Meanwhile, white and higher-income students enroll in the six formerly white-only universities, which are the most expensive.

And in South Africa, the outcomes are stark: In a country that is more than three quarters black, fewer than a quarter of the students at the top-rated public University of Cape Town are black.

Lower-income students in both countries often attend much worse primary and secondary schools that provide less support and fewer mentors. As a result, many don’t even try to go on to higher educations or arrive unprepared.

“What we learn is meant to help us not go anywhere in life,” said Lelosa, at Wits, who said no one from his rural hometown has left for college since he did.

The protests are “a product of a perfect story of triple social challenges—namely, poverty, inequality, and unemployment—all with the backdrop of apartheid and colonialism,” said Rorisang Moseli, the black president of the Students’ Representative Council at the University of Cape Town.

Rising from those challenges requires a degree, Moseli said. But the best college educations seem largely limited “to those who are economically able, or working class students [who] commit themselves to massive debt.”

A much higher 57 percent of American nonwhite high-school graduates go to college, though that’s still lower than the 68 percent of whites who do, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.

In the United States, it’s more often income that determines whether someone gets a higher education and where. Eighty percent of U.S. high-school graduates whose families are in the top quarter of income seek degrees, compared to 45 percent from the bottom quarter, research by the University of Pennsylvania and the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education shows.

A sea of sitting students covers the floor of a large hall.
Student protesters stage a sit-in over fees in the administration building of the University of Witwatersrand. (Ihsaan Haffejee)

Widening enrollment and thinly stretched budgets mean that regardless of how much students spend on higher education in both South Africa and the United States, many never graduate. Only 58 percent of South African students and 55 percent of American ones finish college within six years of starting it. Those numbers are much, much higher for students in both countries at the top universities and colleges; many of the rest end up with debt but no degrees.

The result is that, rather than eliminating inequality, higher education is exacerbating it.

“When you deny people education because they can’t afford it, you’re saying the inequalities will perpetuate,” said Kefentse Mkhari, the student-government president at Wits, who is pursuing a degree in mathematics and finance.

That puts institutions like the University of Cape Town up against not only literal mountains, but figurative ones. As in the United States, politicians know that they can choke off spending and evade responsibility, letting universities take the blame for raising fees and making up the difference.

“They basically set us up by saying, ‘It’s not us. It’s the universities.’ That’s the kinds of games that are being played by the politicians,” Habib said. “We have to redirect this problem to the state.”

South African universities have been strategic at pointing the finger right back at the government, and administrators and staff from the University of Cape Town joined with students in a march on Parliament there.

But universities are not completely off the hook.

The students “do have a good sense of understanding that the universities can’t resolve the issue of fee-free higher education. It’s only government that can do that. But they see the universities as an extension of government,” said Francis Petersen, the deputy vice chancellor at the University of Cape Town. And many, like Lelosa, wonder why the price keeps going up at a rate much faster than the cost of living, which was about 4 percent in 2015 and just over 6 percent last year, the government reports.

“The universities have borne the brunt. I feel sorry for them. They’ve done the best they could,” said Muller. “But they are also being strategic by saying, ‘We’re with the students.’ Because why wouldn’t they be? They also want the government to put more money into the higher-education system.”

A man sits for a portrait
Seán Muller (Ihsaan Haffejee)

That’s where the consensus ends, however. Solving the problem of college costs and access—as in the United States—has proven confounding.

Eliminating fees altogether in South Africa would cost the government an estimated $4.6 billion a year, requiring higher taxes. If the money comes from sales taxes, it would create a lopsided burden on the poor, Habib said; if from income taxes, it could slow economic growth. (Some of the students in what has become a splintered movement want living costs covered, too, which would consume another $3.8 billion a year; they argue that wealthier students live closer to the campuses and can commute, while lower-income ones from far-off towns and townships are forced to pay for room and board.)

Universities also worry that being blocked from charging fees would squeeze them even tighter, creating what Habib calls an “egalitarianism of poverty,” and activists say it would further benefit the rich who can afford to pay.

The same arguments have been made by university leaders in Germany, where university tuition has been gradually made all but free, and in the United States, where the idea of free tuition was proposed by the Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.

“All the evidence shows that it’s disproportionately wealthy students who would benefit from that,” said Muller. “That’s regressive from a public-finance point of view.”

Because wealthier students are more likely to enroll in college in South Africa, research shows that nearly half of government funding here already benefits the richest 10 percent of families. This, too, is similar to what happens in the United States, where tuition tax credits, tax-deductible savings plans, federal work-study aid, and other programs meant to help the poor instead skew toward the rich.

Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of Universities South Africa, said he worries that it also means public trust in higher education worldwide may decline.

“The trickier question is if young people and their families begin to see universities as not such a good investment,” Bawa said. “We’re beginning to see that in the U.K. and the U.S.,” where opinion polls show great and growing skepticism about the value of going to college.

“The current demonstrations, one would hope, will result in a set of outcomes that will make higher education more affordable for the poor,” he said. “But my great fear is that belief in higher education begins to be eroded.”

Another proposal: more reliance on student loans, as in the United States, or a graduate tax like those in England and Australia, under which the cost of college would be paid by graduates based on what they earn.

“I think that’s more fair,” Bogosi said. “People who can pay should pay.”

Protestors stand in a group. One man holds a sign that reads "Education is a powerful tool."
Students protesting at the University of Witwatersrand (Ihsaan Haffejee)

But it would be the poor who likely would need bigger loans, which critics say could limit what jobs and career risks they can take. And in South Africa, a graduate tax could accelerate a brain drain by encouraging people to leave and avoid paying. Already, nearly 11 percent of graduates from the universities of Cape Town, Stellenbosch and the Western Cape, and Cape Peninsula University of Technology said in a survey that they had left the country or had plans to leave.

“A tax is a great idea for Australia, but not for South Africa,” said Penny Andrews, a human-rights advocate who herself left for a succession of jobs including the presidency of Albany Law School in New York before returning to become the University of Cape Town’s dean of law. “A tax is foolhardy. If I can get free education and then go and do the New York bar, why should I stay?”

So after a year and a half of protests, South Africa appears no closer to figuring out how to solve its higher-education affordability problem.

Whether Habib and others in South Africa are right that similar protests are ahead in the United States, the American research and technology company EAB notes that there has been “a sharp uptick” in student activism—so far aimed at other targets—and the Donald Trump era has seen a rise in public demonstrations generally, all in an era when this can be propelled by social media.

Asked about their reticence to protest rising costs, as opposed to faculty diversity and other issues, some U.S. student leaders said privately that they fear swift retribution from administrators, or worry about diminishing the reputations of the institutions from which they hope to ultimately earn degrees.

Even in South Africa, there is infighting among the student activists, Mkhari and others said. When protests canceled classes and delayed exams, some students were incensed, including international students whose visas were expiring and those living off campus whose leases were up or who had deadlines to register for new accommodations.

Lelosi, the graduate student at Wits, wishes there was an easier way to solve the problem. He said he thinks one thing that would help would be for alumni earning comfortable salaries to pay it forward in the form of contributions, which are much less common in South Africa than in the United States.

Standing in the center of the campus during a lull between terms, with painted-over graffiti still dully visible around him on the walls, he nodded sadly.

“I wish this could be a conversation,” he said, “and not a protest.”


This post appears courtesy of The Hechinger Report.