Max du Preez

#FeesMustFall: Never waste a good crisis

2016-09-27 05:17

Max du Preez

Never waste a good crisis, they say. So let’s use the crisis around the demand for free tertiary education to sort out some of our national priorities.

Free education at universities is indeed achievable without breaking the economy or sucking the small number of taxpayers completely dry and it would be good for universities, but shouldn’t free (and better) basic education, feeding schemes for under-nourished children, clean water and basic sanitation for the millions of poor citizens rate as a higher priority?

The debate can help us to focus much sharper on what we spend taxpayers’ money on; where we can save; which institutions we can scale down, close down or privatise.

An example. The governing party, the EFF, the trade unions and a chunk of civil society strongly believe that SAA shouldn’t be privatised.

But now that we’re faced with the urgent need to make every cent count, shouldn’t we admit that it makes no sense to continue to support the airline financially? What value does a state-owned airline have for ordinary citizens, especially the poor who will probably never use it?

Citizens should engage on where we are wasting our national resources. Some of the proposals on the table are: cut the Cabinet and the president’s staff in half; scrap the useless and wasteful National Youth Development Agency or merge it with another department; drastically scale down on politicians’ and civil servants’ security, parties, trips and transport; close down unnecessary foreign missions; scrap vanity projects like the Durban Commonwealth Games in 2022; and don’t spend one more cent on nuclear power stations.

Here’s a sobering thought: if we add the amount the state loses annually through corruption and wastage, about R30bn, to the present state contribution to higher education, we would already have enough money to scrap university fees.

But again: if it is possible to save billions this way, shouldn’t we rather spend at least some of it on the poor and on basic education? Fighting crime? Land reform?

This is also our opportunity to ask the hard questions about who should really go to university and who should do some other after-school training.

We should also now seriously investigate the advantages and disadvantages if online education – it’s much cheaper and students don’t need accommodation.

Another important question is whether fighting inequality should be a higher priority than the more immediate battle against extreme poverty and unemployment.

The small group of militant protestors on our campuses clearly believes that short-term, race-based inequality is the first priority. They’re not saying much about the poor state of squatter camps or black education; their “pain” is more campus-based and their aims appear focused on the emerging middle class.

Inequality is indeed not only morally untenable, but a serious threat to our precious stability. And it is increasingly clear that if our stability comes under serious threat, it will come from the black middle and working classes rather than the poor and unemployed.

The present fee system has wealthy parents pay 8 mo%re in 2017, the “missing middle” group and the NSFAS-beneficiaries (together forming about 70% of students) the same as in 2015.

That seems fair. The rich shouldn’t be subsidised, is the argument.

But students have pointed out to me that rich (mostly white) young people won’t have to repay loans once they’re working, while those with loans have to, which reinforces inequality.

A young black professional will struggle for years to pay back hundreds of thousands of rands and support their families (Black Tax), while rich, mostly white young working people can buy cars and start saving for property.

This is not an invalid argument, especially if we decide that the eradication of race-based inequality is a priority.

So yes, it would mean the rich kids would be subsidised at university, but with their parents’ high taxes. No?

The crisis on our campuses also gives us an ideal opportunity to discuss the question of the legitimate boundaries of activism. Protest is by its definition disruptive, but where is the line of respect for other’s rights?

How big a mandate or popular support does a group of activists need to disrupt other people’s lives? How is that mandate derived? Is there ever any justification for violence, however legitimate the protest is?

From where I sit, Wits vice-chancellor Adam Habib’s proposal for a student referendum on whether the academic programme should be allowed to continue is a sound one.

If the vast majority of students prefer to continue attending classes and writing exams, then that’s what should happen.

But I wasn’t surprised that the protest “leaders” rejected this democratic method.

Many of them have shown themselves to be undemocratic and dogmatic with little tolerance for others’ rights or free speech.

Should we as the public tolerate the tyranny of a few in the name of “revolution”?

 - Follow Max on Twitter.

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