Guest Column

The death of SA universities

2016-10-21 13:33

Susan Erasmus

Last year I had sympathy with the #FeesMustFall campaign. I think lots of people did. The students were mostly disciplined, well organised, and ended up achieving what they had set out to do, namely no increase in tertiary fees – a reasonable request in tough economic times. Bully for the government who somehow managed to find the money.

But the events of the last few weeks have made my sympathy wane considerably.

Let me start by saying that I am very aware of educational and economic inequalities in our society, and the heartache and hardships these can cause – sometimes insurmountable. It is also only human to feel bitter about these things and to want to rectify or redress this unfair situation.

But to destroy the very institutions that can be instrumental in this redress, is shortsighted and in fact, nothing short of utterly selfish. You cannot willfully break the law and destroy public property, however angry and frustrated you are, and then complain if you are treated like a criminal.

There I have said it – everyone is pussyfooting around this issue for fear of not being PC. So much so that they would rather sit back and watch a couple of hundred disgruntled students destroy SA tertiary institutions forever, than to take action of some sort.

Vast majority of students want to study

That’s just the thing: the vast majority of students at SA’s universities want the classes to resume and the academic year to finish. At Wits, in an SMS referendum, it was 73%. It stopped being a black/white issue many years ago. Go and check the demographics of SA’s universities. Many students are studying on bursaries and loans, and some have long-suffering parents who are footing the bill.  (Few parents can afford these fees – if I had kids, the most I could do would be to co-sign a student loan.) All of these people stand to lose hundreds of thousands of rand if this year is scuttled. Not to speak of the 2017 intake of new students.

Of course universities reflect the society in which they function. All educational institutions do. Look at schools in SA in the 1970s and 1980s. They were battlegrounds.

High status

But it might be time to take a look at the role of universities in a changing society such as ours. Being at university has taken on an almost mythical importance to many people to whom access to these institutions was denied for decades. Academic training has become a huge status symbol in our society, and the current system of subsidies encourages universities to take on many students who are unlikely to pass or to finish their courses in the designated time.

Universities, by definition, are not vocational training centres, charitable institutions, or bridging programmes, but should be places of academic excellence. In societies who don’t share our grim history of inequality, that is just what they are. In countries such as Germany, where the taxpayers are many, tertiary education is largely free to German citizens. But, and here is the catch: their admissions policies are strictly based on academic merit, and the vast majority of applicants are not successful in gaining admission. That is why they can afford to fund tertiary education.

What our country needs are electricians, trauma counselors, technicians, teachers, plumbers, nurses, mechanics, builders and well-trained police staff. We do not need hundreds of people with degrees in Social Sciences, which do not always have great employment possibilities. Sure, they’re a nice-to-have, but we’re building a nation. We need the foundations to be laid and the walls to be built before we can call in the interior decorators.

Unfortunately, status has won out over practicality – a natural result of the former and current economic and educational inequalities in our society.

The poor will ultimately foot the bill

If all the money disappearing between the cracks in SA could be rechannelled, sure the government could probably make tertiary education free. But that is simply not going to happen. If tertiary education was paid for by the government, that cash will come from other sources, and those who are going to suffer will inevitably be the poor and the voiceless.

I spent seven years of my life working for a tertiary bridging programme, where students came to redo Maths, Science and English, rewrite those Matric subjects, and reapply to tertiary institutions. It was an amazing experience. We had a 75% tertiary placement rate among students whose previous applications had been unsuccessful. Over the years the college helped hundreds of students to get to tertiary institutions, helped them apply for bursaries, and saw many of them go on to do great things. It can be done, but that is not the role of the universities.

The protesting students are denying those opportunities to current and future students. What they are doing is downright selfish, not to speak of criminal. Universities are cash-strapped and vulnerable institutions, who never promised free education, and they are bending over backwards to try and be accommodating. Maybe to the detriment of the vast majority of their students and staff members. I do not want Adam Habib’s job for all the money in the world – he is simply caught between a rock and a hard place. I admire his patience.

But this campaign might spell the end of the road for many of these tertiary institutions. This has already happened in many other African countries, where private universities have become the norm, and the free state universities cash-strapped, underfunded and poorly rated.

Is tertiary education a right?

In an ideal society, yes. But however strongly you feel about anything, violence and wanton destruction can never be justified.  And no, tertiary education is not a right in a country where millions live in poverty. We simply should have other priorities. Yes, by all means promote the state loan system, bursaries, student loans to promising students. But nothing in life is free – certainly not if the taxpayer is footing the bill.

And yes, “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people”, as German  poet Henirich Heine said. That is what I find so frightening about the current situation. Activists cross the line to becoming common criminals when they vandalise public property and lock staff in burning buildings. However justified they feel their cause might be.

A minority of individuals is holding tertiary institutions and thousands of fellow students to ransom. And when I listen to some of the arguments of the student leaders justifying their use of violence, it’s almost like they’re channelling PW Botha at the height of the turmoil in the 1980s, who clearly also felt that the end justified the means. Indeed, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    education  |  university fees  |  university protests
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