#FeesMustFall, is this a fair, rational demand?

2016-10-30 12:33

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The nation is witnessing unprecedented scenes of violence in the higher education sector in the post-1994 era.

How realistic is this demand of free higher education, especially when assessed against the backdrop of competing demands on the fiscus and other challenges within education?

A look at education in its entirety, from preschool to tertiary, could assist.

Our education is faced with myriad challenges.

They include funding, quality, leadership, relevance and scope of curriculums, participation by low socioeconomic groups, and, most importantly, the unacceptable learner attrition between Grade 1 and matric.

Recent studies show that our attrition rate between Grade 1 and the undergraduate degree is about 69%.

Funding is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, for the past 22 years, the government has shown poor leadership.

They have often given lip service to transformation without any viable strategies to improve quality.

The well-known lowering of standards at secondary school level has hurt higher education.

The quality of our education is best reflected when comparison is made with maths scores of other nations. Year after year South Africa is rock bottom.

This suggests that significant funding should have been channelled towards primary and secondary education to improve teacher knowledge and competence, to provide better facilities such as libraries and laboratories, and improve the discipline of teachers and students.

Instead, the government lowered standards at matric level so that we continue rejoicing on improving matric results, when in fact the quality is floundering.

Further, the government closed teacher-training colleges and allowed the training to reside in universities.

That was a strategic blunder, as universities were and still are ill-equipped to provide the kind of teacher who is attitudinally and pedagogically sound to deal with the required approaches to teaching in the modern era.

The quality of rural and township schools has seen little or no improvement since the apartheid era.

Schools that did not have properly qualified teachers, sporting facilities, laboratories and libraries largely remain the same.

Conditions have worsened as we witness schools being populated by pregnant girls, and learners reaching matric with only a rudimentary ability to read and write.

The mystery is that yearly budget allocation to education continues to balloon at the expense of competing demands, such as health, infrastructure development and job creation.

Fee-free higher education means that the taxpayer alone must shoulder the burden for financing higher education. We have a stagnant economy, hence the stagnant to diminishing pool of taxpayers.

Those who argue that company tax must be increased to fund higher education fail to recognise that companies can move their operations to other jurisdictions that have favourable tax regimes, potentially increasing the already drastic unemployment.

Many countries have grappled with the challenge of funding the poor student and have come up with innovative solutions which have not excluded a minimum contribution by the student.

In our case, poor students are provided for by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, which looks at the low socioeconomic students who are assessed in terms of their academic talent as well as financial need.

Free education must remain a goal in terms of planning by public policymakers.

It must not be introduced in isolation from other challenges.

It must take cognisance of potential unintended consequences such as clogging up the higher education system with people who, for a variety of reasons, are not likely to graduate. The attrition rate at universities is already unacceptably high.

The demand for “decolonisation” of higher education is a tricky one. While I understand the curriculum content for subjects such as history can be revised so that our children learn less about the French Revolution and more about African revolutions, it is difficult to see how subjects such as maths, science, technology, engineering and medicine can be subject to said decolonisation.

I am, however, open to learn more about this concept.

Some people have talked about education in the vernacular.

However, I battle to find an isiXhosa expression for something as basic as the square root of sixteen.

I doubt our vernacular languages are ready for the rigours of science.

I wish the fees commission’s terms of reference were broader than just fees.

Our education system needs to be rescued from the quagmire in which it finds itself.

Lastly, one hopes that a more rational compromise will be reached which will rescue the academic year. I believe that free higher education could be introduced gradually, based on affordability.

Prioritising those who come from low socioeconomic groups and are academically talented should be the starting point.

Priority could also be given to studies leading to skills and professions which are required in our economy; certain degree studies could be made free of tuition fees.

That would be a more rational approach to dealing with the current impasse and would also address some of our economic needs in respect of skills.

Dyasi is a scientist and an educationist

Read more on:    education  |  fees must fall  |  protests

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