Following the recent Fees Must Fall uproar in South Africa, En-novate along with its partners, Standard bank, Investec and the Entrepreneurship Development Trust (EDT) recently embarked on a fact-finding tour to Brazil with 13 university student leaders. The aim of the trip facilitated by Student Village’s CEO, Ronen Aires, was to investigate whether free, quality education is a possibility in South Africa.
Contextually, Brazil has many similarities to South Africa, in that the country is also has a colonial past and high inequality levels. “The aim of this trip was to expose student leaders, not only to a country that offers free education from basic to tertiary level, but to also have learnings about structural inequalities that Brazilians experience on a daily, so we can avoid making those same mistakes”, opened co-founder of En-novate, Dan Brotman.
Statistically, 15% of Brazilians are enrolled in higher education, and from that already low figure, only 10% of the population graduates from tertiary education institutions. Furthermore, Brazil produces more female graduates than any other country in the world, but the workplace doesn’t reflect this.
Political Science honours student Thabo Shingane added, “Free higher education in Brazil only serves those who are rich and who’ve had access to good schools from basic level. This trip was an emotional rollercoaster because when you hear free education is accessible in other countries you feel hopeful for our own context. But when we saw the way in which a lot of people couldn’t even get access to Universities due to structural inequalities, it certainly hit home.”
To get accepted into a University in Brazil one needs to pass an exam (ENADE). This testing system, particularly its determining of who gets access to higher education or not, has been met with criticism as majority of students from more privileged backgrounds are better equipped to pass, ultimately getting access to higher education.
Likewise, in South Africa, the students’ grievances during the Fees Must Fall movement was not only access to free and decolonized education, but also quality education. The counter-argument popularized by the media was that a lot of students are failing because they are not equipped for University. This posed the big question of whether it is from a basic education level that these education issues need to be addressed - a debate that is still brewing in both Brazil and South Africa.
Nobungcwele Mbem, student leader and University of Pretoria, Historical and Heritage studies post graduate student said she left feeling excited about going overseas for the first time, but her life was changed when she saw the extreme inequalities in the Brazilian education system. Thabo added that this experience left all of the leaders more determined than ever to find solutions to the issues the South African education system faces.
Nobungcwele and Thabo admitted that free education for all may not be possible at this point, however free education for the poor and missing middle is a possibility that the South African government can implement. In a moment that left the entire room in awe, Nobungwcele quoted legendary singer Thandiswa Mazwai’s ‘Nizalwa Ngobani’ saying, “The world changes, revolutionaries die and the children forget”. She added that in the case of education, it’s not the children that forget but the graduates and working class who disconnect with the very same struggles they faced as students when they start making money.
It has become clear that education is a societal issue that needs to be solved from various sectors. It is only through the collaboration of government, the private sector and the country at large that we can overcome the education crises we see ourselves in.
“Brazil offered a rare opportunity for us to glimpse into the future of whether free education is a possibility in South Africa. It gave us a chance to assess the pros and cons of free education as well as the extent to which it has addressed the inequalities in Brazil”, concluded trip facilitator Ronen Aires.