Universities take the brunt of the frustration felt by students but the pressure of addressing student financial struggles cannot only be placed at their feet.

The material conditions of students have a monumental impact on the realisation of their right to further education. Since 2015, students have protested for the government to create an environment for “free” tertiary education at best and “affordable” tertiary education at worst. At present, one could argue that neither call has been adequately answered.

Section 29(1)(b) of the constitution places an obligation on the government, through reasonable measures, to progressively make further education available and accessible. Whether the material conditions of students have actually changed remains to be seen. With youth unemployment rising to over 80% for those with only a matric or less, the need for tertiary education is more important than ever.

Statistics from the Department of Higher Education show that the financial burden of student fees is increasing rather than decreasing. With Old Mutual estimating that it costs on average R55,900 to study in 2024. With 24% of South African households surviving on social grants, it is even more important that accessible higher education be made a priority. Much of the #FeesMustFall movement was centred on the fact that student historical debt was increasing despite the constitutional obligation placed on the government to assist students in need.

Former President Jacob Zuma announced a (rushed) free education policy in 2017, essentially ignoring recommendations regarding the lack of capacity of the state to provide such. As predicted, provisions were not made for the additional students who would inevitably register under this scheme resulting in student debt growing to an unparalleled R16.5 billion in 2021.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) struggles to reliably distribute funding allocated by the government. But what has been distributed has done little to alleviate the barriers which prevent students from accessing their constitutional right to further education. Capped NSFAS accommodation allowances came to a head when students were evicted from their accommodations in late 2023 for being unable to afford their rent in full.

While government spending on universities has also increased, it has made little difference as income, separate from students and government, has decreased. This past February, Wits University had set aside R30 million to assist academically qualifying students register for the coming year, and even that was not enough to accommodate everyone.

As the Student Representative Council president expressed earlier this year, constant protesting cannot be sustained, especially to address similar problems each year. Universities take the brunt of the frustration felt by students but the pressure of addressing student financial struggles cannot only be placed at their feet. The government consistently fails to meet constitutionally mandated obligations and near refuses to fulfil its own promises.

How powerful education is at unlocking the full potential of a human being to enjoy and exercise other fundamental rights is truly underestimated. The graduate unemployment rate (though significant in its own right) is over 22% lower than the national average.

To even begin redressing decades of historical oppression, an earnest attempt to empower individuals to access their own fundamental rights must be made. This Human Rights Day, we should consider whether a government that we cannot trust to even attempt to fulfil every person’s right to further education deserves our vote this coming election season.