The South African government defended its policy of charging school fees for primary education, challenging a call by the U.N. Children's Fund for free universal primary education.
Releasing its annual State of the World's Children report Thursday, the United Nations Children's Fund set out seven steps towards improving the education of girls. Number three on the list, and the most specific of the organization's recommendations, is the abolition of school fees for primary education, which it says are a major barrier to the education of girls.
UNICEF is not alone in arguing that free access to education is an essential step towards reducing poverty and underdevelopment, especially in Africa. International monetary organizations like the World Bank, which formerly said governments should charge for basic services, have since changed their minds and now support free primary education.
But in a panel discussion on the UNICEF report in Johannesburg, the Director-General of South Africa's Department of Education, Thami Mseleku, said such advice was misguided and that cutting school fees would lead to an exodus of rich students from public schools and a decline in quality.
School fees in South Africa, which vary widely in amount, are used to subsidize state funding to buy supplies, improve facilities and often hire additional teachers.
"What we should all be talking about is not that we should abolish school fees; we should be saying that how do we ensure that school fees do not act as a barrier to access to quality education for the poor and the poorest of the poor, because abolishing school fees means subsidizing the rich," said Thami Mseleku.
According to South African law, no student can be turned away from a public school for inability to pay the school fees. The government is also planning to implement programs to subsidize poor schools with low fees and high numbers of students who are unable to pay. If the plan is approved, school fees may be reduced or eliminated at the poorest schools.
But fellow panelist and national coordinator of the National Association of School Governing Bodies Victor Mathonsi said in practice school fees remained a problem for many families.
"In practical terms out there in communities you find there are still a significant number of children who are actually not going to school because of school fess that are serving as a barrier," he said. "The notion that communities should supplement the resources made available by the department in the midst of the poverty that affects our daily lives makes it difficult for parents."
The debate in South Africa and other African countries on school fees will continue, but as even young people like 17-year-old panelist Shanna Nienaber realize, there are no easy answers.
"While we're all aware of the fact that school fees are a barrier, but also that if school fees aren't paid we're not necessarily getting the quality of education that we so desperately need in South Africa because you can't pay the teachers to stay at the schools if you're not getting a decent enough salary to kind of benefit from what they're doing," said Shanna Nienaber.