10 Ignored Conversations: Higher education funding in the digital age

Josephine Shikongo, Oklahoma State University

Oklahoma State University



Learning in the digital age is often positioned in a positive light. After all, it often means having access to varied digital resources that can be accessed by different computing devices including mobile phones. Learning in the digital age also mean connecting people across time and space to form a broader community of learners. All of these are very positive things that cannot be trivialized. However, in this sea of positivity, we must also own the negativity that still remains. Such negative aspects are often related to matter of access. Meaning that while learning in the digital age can conjure up positive images of learning, not everyone can access or equally participate in this new real. Often this problem of access is a result of financial constraints. This chapter addresses the issue access to learning in the digital age. Specifically, I look at financial constraints as a barrier to access, by exploring the #FeesMustFall in southern Africa. The goal of the chapter is to remind that there are many issues that while seen as tangential can directly influence one’s ability to learning in the digital age.

On October 12, 2015, at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg South Africa, what started as a peaceful protest against government’s decision to allow universities to increase fees for the 2016 academic year, and increase government budged to higher education institution (Hodes, 2017), quickly turned into violent riots which spread across the country. The protests quickly spread beyond the borders to neighbouring Namibia.

Namibia, which is a former South African colony, gaining its independence in 1990, has been experiencing economic growth since then; however, there is still a visible economic divide between whites and black Namibians. As a result of previous discriminatory and exclusion systems, many have called for the return of their ancestral land and remedial policies. Although the government has been trying to remedy the results of apartheid through policy, they have only achieved little success due to power imbalances.

Tuition fees have been at the centre of many debates around higher education. In Southern Africa, and particularly South Africa and Namibia where the apartheid history still has visible residue in the socio-economic status of the citizens, tuition fees remain one of the aspects continuing to challenge inequality in the countries (Hopson, 2001; Langa et al., 2017). According to the South Africa History Online (2016), historically black universities such as the University of Fort Hare and Tswane University of Technology have been protesting long before the fees must fall movement erupted, however, they never received any media attention. The fees must fall movement gained media momentum because it started at Witwatersrand, a historically white institution. Another indication of the inequalities left by apartheid.

This study will focus on the Fees Must Fall movement that erupted in South Africa during October 2015 as a central focus through which the paper will examine the impact of such a movement on Namibia’s higher education. The paper will further look at what could be the best funding structure for Namibian higher education institution, considering the history of the country to guard against movements such as fees must fall in the future. As small as the country is, and with only three higher education institutions (Naris & Ukpere, 2010) serving the 2.5 million population, like the rest of the world, there are still challenges in higher education.

The student debt challenge is not unique to Namibia and South Africa alone. In the United States, this challenge is visible through what is known as the student debt crisis, which has become such a topical issue that it has been central to the democratic candidates for the 2020 Presidential elections, with candidates competing on who has the better solution in their campaign.

Namibian history

According to South African history website, in 1884, Germany declared Namibia (then, South West Africa) as its colony. The Germans took occupation of the country from 1888, taking over Herero lands. The Herero and Nama people revolted in 1904 and lasted until 1907. Many were killed in this war, which led to the first genocide of the 20th century, with Germany setting up concentration camps where medical experimentation and executions took place. Over 90,000 Hereros and Namas, which is more than half of their population, was wiped out completely. War continued until Germany was eventually defeated.

During the First World War, South Africa took occupation of Namibia from 1915. In 1920, the League of Nations granted South Africa the mandate to govern Namibia and help it reach its independence; however, South Africa defied the orders. Since then, South Africa took occupation of Namibia as its colony until 1990 when Namibia finally gained its independence through a United Nations resolution. Namibia developed an army which waged war on South Africa in 1966, a war which lasted some 23 years. Many Namibians were dying and going into exile to neighbouring countries, including some leaders such as Andimba Toivo Ya Toivo, who was imprisoned on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. Namibia was under the same apartheid rule as South Africa. When Namibia gained independence, South Africa was still going through war, and the apartheid government held back Walvis Bay, the harbour town to remain a territory of South Africa. Upon being released from prison and becoming the first President of a free South Africa, Nelson Mandela returned Walvis Bay to Namibia. Walvis Bay is home to the harbour and the fishing sector, which is the third contributing economic sector to the country’s GDP.

Political environment

At independence, the liberation movement, South West Africa People Organization (SWAPO) won the majority vote and became the ruling party. SWAPO originated from OPO (Owamboland People Organization) which was established in northern Namibia by the Aawambo people, the majority of the Namibian population to date. When it gained the country independence, it vowed to become a national builder which has the interest of the country at heart. The founding President, Dr Sam Nujoma was quoted saying “A people united for a common cause will always emerge victorious” as a binding statement to support the party’s “One Namibia, One Nation” campaign. The drive to keep the country together and maintain peace, stability and prosperity has been one of the country’s highest-ranking advantages on multiple indices.

Although the constitution only allows five-year presidential terms renewable once, the first President served three terms of 15 years as the country was seen as vulnerable, fresh out war and was not ready for a change of leadership. Thirty years later, Namibia has had multiple peaceful elections, with three Presidents, all belonging to SWAPO. Small opposition parties have been having trouble gaining support as most people are still voting on emotions of war and trusting their liberator SWAPO. In 2019, however, the incumbent President lost 30% of his support from the previous election, gaining only 56% of the votes from 87% in 2015. Most of these votes were lost to an internal SWAPO candidate who ran as an independent and promised people a new wave of economic freedom. Thirty years after the war, the number of young people has grown, including those who have never experienced war, and only need the “prosperity” that SWAPO has been promising. The independent candidate gained traction with the youth, especially on issues such as inflated land prices, corruption, high education costs and overall poverty that prevails within the country. As a result, the President has started listening to the people.

Economic status

Namibia’s population at independence was 1.4 million, which grew to 2.4 million as of 2018 (World Bank). The country covers an area of approximately 312,000 square miles, making it the second least densely populated country in the world after Mongolia (World Atlas). The country’s Gross Domestic Products (GDP) grew from $2.79 in 1990 to $14.52 in 2018. With a GDP per capita of $5,931, Namibia is ranked by the World Bank as an upper-middle-income country and ranks much higher than many African countries. The main contributors to the GDP are minerals, fishing, tourism and agriculture (Humavindu and Stage, 2013). The country, however, faces high unequal distribution of income and has one of the highest Gini-coefficient in the world at 59.1%, second only to South Africa (World Bank) which is unsurprising considering their shared brutal history. About 70% of Namibians depend on subsistence farming for daily livelihood and survival. Although the country has a vast land, most of it is arid, hence 70% of its imports, especially food still comes from South Africa. As a result, and to ensure a smooth exchange of trade between the two countries the Namibian currency (the Namibian Dollar) is directly pegged to the South African Rand and the Rand is a legal tender in Namibia. The country’s human development index is ranked at 130/189 countries by the UNDP report.

Although education has often enjoyed the largest share of the country’s annual budget, competing priorities of development have been taking part of the pie, and allocation has reduced slightly with 3% in 2019, with higher education receiving only N$3.1 billion (PWC Budget Report, 2019). The reduction places pressure on institutions of higher education in allocating the resources effectively to ensure effective execution of the education mandate placed on institutions. Although the government has done a considerable good job in reducing poverty from 22.6% in 2009 to 14.6% in 2018 (Du Plessis & Keyter, 2019), there are still significant economic challenges facing the country. The country has been experiencing low economic growth for four years since 2016, leading to high unemployment which reached 33.4% in 2018 (Cirrus Capital). Graduates from higher education institutions are struggling to find jobs in a depressed economy; parents are struggling to pay fees as some are laid off, and others cannot find employment. The value of higher education is not far from being questioned.

Namibia Higher Education

Before the establishment of the Academy for Tertiary Education in 1980, higher education was a privilege enjoyed by the few who could afford to study in South Africa, mainly white Namibians (Hangula et al., 2017). Black Namibians were historically subjected to Bantu Education Act of 1953, a curriculum designed by the apartheid government which was meant to keep black Namibians and South Africans as subhuman and only gain lower-paying jobs (Hopson, 2001).

After independence, two public institutions of higher education were established, the University of Namibia (UNAM) and the Polytechnic of Namibia, now known as the Namibian University of Science and Technology (NUST) to ensure social equity and access. UNAM was established in 1992 while NUST was established two years later in 1994, both by Acts of Parliament, 18 and 38 respectively (Nust Home). In 2018, UNAM had a total enrollment of 28,217 students (UNAM Statistics Office, 2018) while NUST had 11,235 (Annual Report, 2018). UNAM is a larger institution compared to NUST, which was only conferred a university status recently and hence had a more significant number of enrolled students, which also means they receive a larger share of funding from the government.

Sufficiently funding higher education could improve the socio-economic status of the country. If the current public institutions are not well funded, it means they cannot produce competent graduates. A lack of skilled labour in the country can only worsen the socio-economic status, increase poverty and unemployment, and the circle continues (Du Plessis & Keyter, 2019). In developing government policy of financing higher education; therefore, all these factors should be considered. Well-funded institutions will have great resources for students, and students would likely reduce protest activities. In the 2019/20 government budget, UNAM was set to receive N$912 million while NUST would receive N$500 million, a ration somewhat aligned with their student enrollment.

Another body administers most of the student loans, the Namibian Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF), which was established by the government. NSFAF has been marred by maladministration and board/executive infighting that its effectiveness has been compromised. Many students graduate and continue working without ever paying back the loans, leaving the body short of cash to provide funding for others.

Other means of funding higher education is student loans from commercial banks. The country is home to four major commercial banks, three (First National Bank, Standard Bank and Nedbank) of which are of South African origin and one (Bank Windhoek) was established in Namibia during apartheid. None of the banks is owned by indigenous Namibians, which often proves challenging to those from poor socio-economic backgrounds to access financing, as their products are not tailored for the poor.

Households further contribute to fees for those unable to secure any other form of funding. According to the Bank of Namibia Financial Stability Report of 2020, Namibian households spend over 70% of their disposable income servicing debt facilities, with a high risk of increasing due to the current low economic performance. This number excludes non-banking financial institutions such as micro-lenders, which if included will bring that number to 90%. This shows that households are highly indebted and have little disposable income available. Nuugulu et al. (2019) also highlight the high household debt in the country and further advocates for financial education on households to avoid individuals from falling deeper into debt. Most household, although they probably do not have a choice as they need to pay for their children’s education, could also do better with financial literacy in how to handle their limited income better. With the continuous drought, economic recession, lower commodity prices, unemployment at other shocks, households continue to remain under immense pressure for disposable income, leading to some students staying out of enrolling due to lack of funds. The poor continue to be excluded.

Fees Must Fall Namibia

Given the apartheid history that both South Africa and Namibia suffered, leaving both countries at the top of most unequal nations in the world, education is viewed as one of the economic equalizers. Therefore these protests are efforts to decolonize education.

Following the Fees Must Fall protests in South Africa, Universities in Namibia (UNAM) also started their protests calling for same. The protests were led by the University of Namibia (UNAM) Student Representative Council (SRC), who was said to have been fueled by the Affirmative Repositioning (AR) movement leader and youth activist Job Amupanda, who is also the head of a department at the university. Students started protesting after university management announced that students who owe more than 50% would not be allowed to write exams (Student News Grid, 2016). Both UNAM and NUST had to immediately reverse the decision and allow students to register without paying registration fees, in fear of the protests turning violent like in South Africa (UniversityWorldNews, 2016).

The universities, however, did not agree to write-off the fees, as the high debt would cripple their financial standing, which is already threatened by low government allocation. According to The Namibian newspaper, many students expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of education received at these institutions as compared to the cost. A final-year student, Petrus Shoopala, said:

Unam, as the leading university in Namibia, has done a lot to improve the education levels in Namibia, yes. However, the institution still lacks the adequate standards that you should expect… We pay thousands of dollars every year, yet we still do not deserve the standards we receive from Unam.

Another student, Atu Shimbilinga, is equally opposed to the fees hike and also took a jab at government, especially on corruption:

I do not think that Unam should increase fees. They are saying they are doing so because the government reduced their subsidy. What type of government is this that does not want to invest in education? Yet we have millions going missing every day, [they are] building new parliaments and paying for ministers’ stay in hotels but claim not to have enough money for education. Also, it is not like the increasing tuition fees are going to improve the standard/ quality of teaching we receive. I understand that Unam has bills to pay, etc but that does not justify the increase. Instead of putting the burden on the students, they should go to the root of the problem, which is government.

Corruption is a social evil that has been long entrenched in the political culture. Recently, two ministers and five of their friends were arrested for changing the fishing law to suit themselves in allocating fishing quotas to companies that benefit them amounts equivalent to $15 million. Another corruption scandal of development bank executive benefiting up to $12 million. When students see such headlines, while universities claim they cannot lower the unaffordable fees, they become enraged as they believe such funds could be used for better.

Although education has enjoyed the most significant budget allocation, the introduction of the Namibia Students Financial Assistance Fund (NSFAF) for grants, the availability of private companies’ scholarships to top performers as well as bank loans, there are still many challenges facing funding education in Namibia. Although there have been many suggested funding structures through policy papers, the government has been reluctant to implement, as education institutions do not agree on one structure (Matengu et al. 2014).

NSFAF is unable to fund everyone, and scholarships are minimal. Bank loans require suretyship, which, with the majority poor black population, many students are unable to provide. Namibians banks also all have their roots in South Africa and are mainly controlled by their South African counterparts (Boer & Sherbourne, 2003), which begs the question of equity when it comes to black Namibia students seeking student loans, as South African banks have a reputation of treating white and black borrowers differently. This practice leaves students who are unable to be funded by NSFAF without options.


The issue of fees must fall comes from lack of funding of the entire higher education sector in the country, coupled with the poor socio-economic status of most families and low culture of philanthropy. Mawere (2017) indicates that both universities and students are victims of this fight, with students being tired of ever-rising fees which they cannot afford due to their backgrounds of apartheid and economic exclusion. Universities, on the other hand, are fighting the battle of a poorly resourced government with competing priorities as it cleans up the legacy of apartheid. African people should, therefore, be cautious not to continue fighting each other on issues that were left by the apartheid legacy.

A senior lecturer at the University of Namibia, Dr Lucy Edwards-Jauch in an opinion piece published by The Namibian newspaper highlighted that the Fees Must Fall movement is a result of neo-liberalism that has changed education from being a right as per the Namibian constitution, to become a privilege. Jauch (2015) further argues that the reduced state funding into a critical sector such as education further amplifies the apartheid regime practices of poverty and inequalities. She argues against privatization of education as most students will not be able to afford the fees and will leave households heavily indebted. The government should seriously consider some of the recommendations that were made during the protests such as wealth tax, capital gains tax and end to corruption to ensure there are enough funds to decolonize education.

Another lecturer at the Namibian University of Science and Technology (NUST), Dr Hugh Ellis also wrote an opinion piece in The Namibian newspaper where he cautioned government to take the fees must fall movement serious and take lessons from South Africa to avoid further protests. Ellis (2015) warns UNAM and NUST against increasing tuition because most students are already unable to afford the current fees due to their socio-economic backgrounds. He further encourages education institutions to reduce their spending on unnecessary activities such as logos, team-building retreats and instead use such funds to reduce tuition cost to students.

Namibia, as a country, does not have a culture of philanthropy in education, which leads to education institutions relying entirely on government funding for the operation. The country which has only been independent for less than 30 years also has competing priorities in terms of development, leading to a shrinking government contribution to education (Ras & Pretorius, 2007) and more pressure on already squeezed households.

Unfunded education means poor black people will remain at the bottom of the economic pillar, increasing poverty which affects life expectancy. Some students interviewed by Nhemachena & Kangira (2017) indicated that the university also needs to consider some unnecessary charges to students. Some fees charged are for services that are unavailable or dysfunctional. These fees include services such as recreational facilities which are often out of order and not available for use to students. Higher education administrators, therefore, have a role to play in cost allocations to ensure cost reduction to students without reducing university revenue.

As a result of limited funding, tensions have been breaking out at educational institutions, mainly at Board and Ministerial level. The Minister of Higher Education who was appointed in 2016 by the new President has been a subject of controversy in the media since appointment. Leadership at the two government-funded institutions, especially the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) had to be changed for the first time since its establishment after independence in 1992.

This change brought about clashes between the board and the minister on who the replacement should be, leaving the institution under and Acting Vice-Chancellor for more than a year. The search continues, while the institution experiences financial challenges. UNAM also went through a leadership change, although, since independence, UNAM has always enjoyed government support and funding more than NUST (Naris & Ukpere, 2010). The Vice-Chancellor of UNAM was cited by Lela Mobile (2016) cautioning students not to follow the South Africans in protesting and burning down universities, saying Namibians should be able to reason better. Prof Hangula mentioned that the government has plans to make higher education free (Lela Mobile, 2016) which is not backed by any policy and could be a dangerous statement to make inciting further protests if unmet.

The country has also in the process been experiencing its worst drought in 60 years, and with over 70% of the population depending on agriculture, this affects a lot of livelihoods and household income. The economy has further been in recession for three consecutive years, the first since independence, causing further reduction in government revenue and placing further pressure on allocation to government institutions, education, rail, as well as the national airline, Air Namibia which has been experiencing losses and dependent on government bailouts for over ten years. The country also went through the most contested elections in 2020, where the incumbent President over 30% of his previous support to an independent candidate. Most of the support is lost due to the most significant corruption case involving $150 million that was discovered just before the elections, leading to the resignation of two Ministers, Fisheries and Justice. They, together with their co-accused, were arrested and await sentencing end February. The people are seeing the once beacon of African hope going the direction of many failed states and want change. Although Namibians are generally peaceful people, the youth are revolting and social media is an essential tool in this fight for economic freedom.

Nhemachena & Kangira (2017) argue that African students access to education challenges cannot be taken lightly and evaluated on basic principles. African students challenges are a result of neo-colonialism dispossession and exploitation. African governments are designing policies for higher education in today’s age; therefore, they should place the issue into the context of dispossession and exploitation as it relates to neo-colonialism. Marketisation, where institutions of higher education run like private institutions, should be highly discouraged in Africa (Moganji et al., 2020). Unlike other continents, Africa has been robbed of its resources. It is also the continent where education arrived late and needs to be accelerated to meet the required economic demands.


In 2020, both UNAM and NUST students protested the registration fees and both institutions granted a reduction or altogether scrapped the fees, giving students a better chance to register. The loan system process was also revised, resulting in some students who never had access to the loan system before getting granted loans (Nhemachena & Kangira, 2017). This, however, has not become policy yet, and there is still a long way to go. As more and more students take up higher education, the need for funding will accelerate. NSFAF still does not have a substantive CEO, which is affecting its effectiveness in granting student loans and collecting outstanding debt.

The current economic conditions have not improved, and many households continue to drown further in debt. Education still appears to be the only equalizer in the country as the apartheid legacy of inequalities continues. Many students are hungry to further their education to become the beacon of hope in removing their families out of poverty. Fees continue to rise as government allocation continues to reduce due to competing priorities of development.

Counting all that is going on in the country in terms of protests, that is mainly fueled by low-income families as a result of low economic growth, drought, corruption, leadership challenges, lack of education philanthropy, reduced government revenue and youth involvement in politics seeking accountability, higher education continues to suffer funding deficits. Finding a useful funding model for Namibia’s higher education is vital if the government is to avoid further unrests. It has been proven through literature that marketization of higher education cannot work in the Namibian context; hence government and the institutions should be creative, fully understand and appreciate the complexity of the Namibian economic background before making these impactful decisions.

Implication for future research

History dictates that the Namibian higher education issues are deeply rooted in the inequalities brought about by the apartheid system (Hopson, 2001). These inequalities are manifesting themselves through student’s inability to access higher education, which further perpetuates the knowledge gap that exists in the black community. When analyzing topics such as fees must fall, researchers must be cautious to not only scratch the surface of what appears to be symptoms of a broader structural history of apartheid. Future research should consider digging deeper into the current funding structures and identify how they can be adjusted to account for the historical disadvantages that were committed and left many outside the higher education system. There is a further lack of data on the current knowledge structure across different ethnic groups. Such data, if provided, may fuel government efforts in bridging existing inequalities. Although there are several studies conducted on the fees must fall, Heffernan (2018) found that most are either racially exclusive, such as Fees Must Fall: Student Revolt, Decolonisation, and Governance in South Africa, a book by Susan Booysen, as well as others such as As By Fire: The End of the South African University, a book by Prof. Jonathan Jansen which focuses mainly on university vice-chancellors’ views and excludes student voices. Owing to the new nature of the movement, most of the current writing is premature and have not grasped the larger picture to the fees must fall movement (Heffernan, 2018). As time progresses, therefore, and more effects are becoming visible, it will be crucial for researchers to view #FeesMustFall clearer.


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Learning in the Digital Age Copyright © 2020 by Josephine Shikongo, Oklahoma State University is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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