How Free Education is Possible in South Africa

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The FeesMustFall movement is sweeping across South Africa for a second time, plunging campuses into chaos under the demand of free education for all. In South Africa – and other African countries – it is clear that education is a privilege, rather than a right, but there are practical ways that technology can be leveraged to provide free education on a large scale.

Social enterprises – broadly defined as organisations that seek to maximise social impact and not just generate profit – can apply powerful business models to balance the scales in education. A simple example of this is cross subsidization. This is the technique of charging higher prices to one group of consumers – or students – and using those funds to subsidize lower prices or even no prices for another group.

The extension of this to education is natural – charge fees to only the students that can afford them, and implement a business model such that a percentage of those fees could be used to support free education for students that cannot, whilst still keeping the education business sustainable. A modern day Robin Hood – borrow from the resourced to give to the poor, maximising social impact alongside revenue.

But how can we decide which group of consumers, or students, has to pay? In South Africa, a widely used framework called the Living Standards Measure (LSM) categorises people into 1 of 10 groups based on income, degree of urbanisation, and other factors to define how resourced a person is. The LSM of someone can map to whether they pay for education or not, or even how much they pay.

This model can be very successfully scaled when applied to online education. Hyperion Development, a South African based technology company, implements this exact model in the field of software development and Computer Science education. By selling online courses to high-income demographics, Hyperion has been able to provide free education in the field to 75% of all its students from across not just South Africa, but Africa.

Hyperion has been able to build a profitable business through this model, by also leveraging graduates of its free courses to become employees and drive forward the promote of free and paid courses through low-cost mechanisms. This model has recently earned the organisation recognition from Facebook as grand prize winners of a $230,000 grant from the Africa Innovation Challenge.

But the model can grow even further – education can be provided online to people in Europe, bringing sustainable income into Africa to fund free education locally. Maybe to scale free education at home, we should look at how we can leverage our resources here to build uniquely excellent services abroad? Maybe Africa can teach the world a lesson.

Author: Riaz Moola

Date originally published: 12/10/16