Mpumelelo Mkhabela

#FeesMustFall: The crisis of ideas

2016-09-23 05:00

Mpumelelo Mkhabela

The fees crisis at South African universities is a symptom of a bigger crisis: intellectual laziness.

Universities are by their very nature spaces of knowledge production and acquisition, research and innovation. They are – or should be – run by distinguished knowledge enthusiasts called academics who teach and research. They are – or should be – a primary breeding ground of ideas.

Yet, South African academics and their students have failed to make it their primary duty to produce a funding model that ensures free higher education for the poor.

It should be disgraceful to a conscientious academic community that President Jacob Zuma has appointed a judge to lead a commission of inquiry on university fees. Judges are trained to adjudicate and settle disputes in society using the applicable laws of the land.

This is not to suggest that they are not capable of conducting investigations. But an inquiry into fees doesn’t need a judge to lead it.

The appointment of Judge Jonathan Heher, which apparently did not offend the academic community, has reduced the fees crisis to a societal dispute that requires the services of a judge to adjudicate. It’s shocking that society does not find this arrangement strange.

It may be that we have become too accustomed to higher education task teams led by non-academics. The late minister of education Kader Asmal appointed a committee led by businessman Saki Macozoma that proposed a plan to merge universities. Recently, minister Blade Nzimande appointed then businessman Cyril Ramaphosa to lead a committee on the review of university funding.

An investigation into the feasibility of free higher education is by its very nature an intellectual task that should attract the best brains of genuine academics. Where are professors of economics, finance, sociology, political science, public administration and other specialist fields? Why don’t they and their students establish a commission to investigate this matter of national importance?

It seems students prefer to engage in violent protests instead of using the tools of research that they are supposedly being equipped with at university to find a solution to the fees crisis. They have very little, if anything, to learn from some of their lecturers who have endorsed the service delivery-type protests we have come to expect of marginalised communities struggling to be heard by authorities.

I’m not suggesting that students and academics must not put pressure on the government to provide free education. They should. There is absolutely nothing wrong with peaceful protest. But the students and their lecturers would do the nation proud if they toyi-toyed to force the government to adopt a thoroughly-researched funding model that they have produced. Alas, they have nothing to show.

Given their supposed research skills and thinking capacities our academics and students should take advantage of government’s transparent budgeting process. Information on economic growth, expenditure, tax revenues, budget balance and borrowing costs among other indicators is publicly available and updated regularly.

This should make it easy for solution-driven academics and students to produce a proposal on free higher education taking into account government’s many other obligations, including the provision of high-quality free primary education!

Toyi-toying while hoisting placards quoting the Freedom Charter’s free education promise does not constitute a funding model. The Freedom Charter is, well, a charter. It’s not a funding model.

Sadly, academics and students have outsourced their intellectual duty to an overburdened and increasingly inefficient state. Isn’t it ironic that the advocates of “in-sourcing” have outsourced solutions-driven thinking to the state which, in turn, has outsourced the task to a judicial commission?

In their book, The Fourth Revolution: The Global Race to Reinvent the State, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write about the role of ideas in the state.

The authors observe: “It is the animating ideas that determine the workings of the state in much the same way that operating systems determine the workings of computers. The crisis of the state is more than an organisational crisis. It is the crisis of ideas.”

Micklethwait and Wooldridge could have been writing about both the South African state and our universities. Instead of being a fountain of ideas that feeds the state with solutions on the fees crisis, the universities have become a burden. In addition to self-imposed inefficiencies and corruption, the state is wobbling under the weight of competing and conflicting demands.

The failure to produce a funding model has caused a national dispute between students and the leadership of the universities and the government. It’s a reflection of the laziness of our academics and students to do their duty: to produce research-based ideas and solutions to solve problems.

In short, universities have one big crisis. It is not primarily about lack of money. It is the crisis of ideas.

- Follow Mpumelelo Mkhabela on Twitter.

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