The Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell describes the tipping point as “... that magic moment when ideas, trends and social behaviours cross a threshold, tip and spread like wildfire1.” In his New York Times bestseller, he suggests that there are three rules for this to happen, namely the Law of the Few, the Stickiness Factor and the Power of Context. In time to come, will 2015 be judged as the moment when we reached the tipping point in South African higher education?

In March 2015 students at the University of Cape Town initiated the “Rhodes Must Fall” (RMF) campaign with the immediate objective being the removal of symbols that the protesters felt were oppressive such as the statue of Cecil John Rhodes. The broader aim has been bringing attention to the “perceived lack of transformation within the education sector”2. In October 2015 after several public universities announced double-digit increases to student fees for 2016, students at the University of the Witwatersrand initiated the “Fees Must Fall” (FMF) campaign culminating in a sit-in on 16 October. Students demanded that the 2016 increase proposal and upfront payments be suspended, that discounts be considered for financially distressed students, that austerity measures be implemented and that “outsourced services” be insourced.        

Both campaigns, impacting the full spectrum of higher education, were started by a few students and grew into national movements. The hashtags #RMF and #FMF were catchy and overnight became the clarion call of the class of 2015. These hashtags definitely met Gladwell's stickiness requirement. In the context of high youth unemployment of 37%3, a Gini-coefficient of 0,654, growth for 2015 projected to be just 1,5%5 and the resulting low job prospects for a generation born into the promise of a better life than their parents, the double-digit 2016 student fee increases, can strongly be argued as being the last straw ‑ the tipping point for South African higher education.

The year 2015

Without doubt, 2015 was the year when transformation and affordability moved from the higher education sector’s agenda to the main agenda of our country. Students, vice-chancellors, academics, workers, government officials, politicians, celebrities and the proverbial person on the street all weighed in with their views on social media. On the transformation front; the issues of access to university education, lack of black lecturers, the inclusion of the study of African languages, language policies and practices and institutional culture have been on the higher education sector’s agenda for years. More equitable access to higher education has been achieved with African students increasing from 49% to 72%6 of the student population in the last 20 years. The approval of the Staffing South Africa’s Universities Framework (SSAUF) by the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in 2015, was another important step in transforming the demographic profile of the academic population in the sector. The incremental progress in transforming higher education over the last two decades, has however frustrated the student movement.

With regards to the affordability of higher education, the 2013 Report of the Ministerial Committee for the Review of the Funding of Universities shows that there has been awareness of this matter at the highest level for some time. The slow progress in implementing the report’s recommendations has however been of concern to the student movement. The announcement of a zero-percent increase in student fees in 2016, with the

R 2,3 billion shortfall being covered by Government and certain universities, is a positive development. This is, however, not a sustainable solution and the Government needs to increase its annual contribution to higher education significantly from the current 0,7%7 of gross domestic product.

Graph showing expenditure on tertiary educational institurions

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which receives almost R10 billion from the state annually, has assisted more than 1,5 million needy students over the last two decades8. The scheme’s recovery rate of less than 30%9 is, however, among the lowest for similar schemes globally.The recent appointment of Sizwe Nxasana, the previous chief executive officer of FirstRand Limited, as the chair of NSFAS is a positive development that can assist the organisation to improve its image, recovery rate and explore ways of expanding the scheme to reach the “missing middle”.

Looking back at 2015, there has been progress on our education journey. Student action in the last year has given the movement the impetus it requires to truly transform the higher education system and also to progressively introduce “free education for the poor in South Africa”. In the words of Pakistani human rights and education activist, Malala Yousafzai, “The road to education, peace and equality is long, but we will succeed if we walk together”.



  1. Malcolm Gladwell. The Tipping Point. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2000
  2. University Assembly: The Rhodes Statue and Transformation (Video), University of Cape Town, 26 March 2015
  3. Statistics South Africa: National & provincial labour market outcomes among youth, June 2015
  4. Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation ‑ Development Indicators 2014
  5. Medium Term Budget Policy Statement by Minister of Finance, 21 October 2015
  6. Higher Education Transformation Summit speech by Minister Blade Nzimande 
  7. OECD Indicators: Education at a glance 2015
  8. National Student Financial Aid Scheme Annual Report 2014/15
  9. Report of the Ministerial Committee on the review of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, 2009
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