FRIDAY BRIEFING | Burning down the house: Anatomy of the battle for free education

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Burning down the house: Anatomy of the battle for free education

Wash, rinse, repeat. Repeat, repeat, repeat. 

It's been eight years since the country has been stuck, and on repeat.

In October 2015, the #FeesMustFall movement erupted across campuses around the country.

Its genesis was at the historically black universities like TUT, before gathering momentum and attention after what were considered historically white and liberal universities like Wits and UCT, joined the fray.

It reached a crescendo after Wits University announced there would be a 10.5% increase in tuition fees. After similar announcements were made at other institutions, protests spread with the contagion effect being felt on campuses across the country. Buckling under pressure, the Presidency announced a zero-fee increase for 2016. 

Protests reignited in 2016 but were fragmented. With little progress being made in addressing ever shifting and changing student demands. By the end of 2017, the Heher Commission into the Feasibility of Fee-Free Higher Education and Training found there was no capacity for the state to provide free tertiary education to all students in the country.

This didn't stop then-president Jacob Zuma from announcing that, come the start of 2018, the government would subsidise higher education.

He stated: "Having amended the definition of poor and working-class students, government will now introduce fully subsidised free higher education and training for poor and working class South African undergraduate students with students in their first year of study at our public universities."

But it didn't address the latent issues that remained. Student debt, and unpaid fees remain a residual issue, the matter of the missing middle, in which category large numbers of students fell, was unaddressed, as was the question of accommodation and subsistence.     

In a country, considered one of the most unequal in the world, closing the gap between those who have access to universities and those who do not, is no mean feat.

A persistent South African economic crisis characterised by poverty, low growth, high unemployment, a skills deficit, corruption and state capture and maladministration predating the onset of Covid-19, was made even worse by the socio-economic effects of the Covid-19 lockdowns.

With teaching and learning resuming after migrating online after Covid-19, the return to in-person learning and teaching has predictably seen the return of student protests, some more violent and destructive than in the past.

Much of the demands centre on the same concerns as previously. Money, accommodation, admissions, exclusions, fees services and privileges. Is more money the solution?

In this week's Friday Briefing, academic and activist Khaya Sithole explains that the current wave of student protests reveals that little has been done to address the fundamental limitations of the funding model. He writes that unfortunately for the state, its historic practice of kicking difficult decisions down the road and hoping for the best, is just not sustainable. 

Dr Seán Muller, a senior research fellow at the Johannesburg Institute for Advanced Study, examines why despite increased money flow to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme we remain stuck in the same place, repeating student protests year after year. 

Dr Quraysha Ismail Sooliman from the Centre for Mediation at the University of Pretoria suggests framing the problem differently. The lens through which protesting students are viewed should shift from them being seen as violent or disrespectful, to viewing that they are resistant subjects pushing back at institutions and a state that has stolen their future and stifled their present.

Finally, the spokesperson of the SA Union of Students, Asive Dlanjwa, reflects on the role of the different stakeholders - the Department of Higher Education, tertiary institutions and NSFAS - and the role they have played in repeatedly sparking the protests and questions why a solution seems so distant.  

Perhaps this gives a better understanding of the challenges and opens a broader conversation to finding a resolution to the seeming impasse in the higher education sector. 


Vanessa Banton 

Opinions editor.  

Students damned to exclusion: The eternal conundrum of underfunded policies

A decade of policy paralysis is gradually condemning an entire generation of students to eternal exclusion, writes Khaya Sithole.

Bad administration and a failure of policy: 4 reasons why students are protesting

Funding to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has increased by R28 billion since the original Fees Must Fall protests, but we are still seeing student protests eight years on. Seán Muller examines four reasons why it is occurring.

The student activist is my hero. Here's why

Blocked before they can even dream, stopped before they can even grow, year in and year out, students are on the streets protesting the exclusion that comes from not having the money to pay registration fees, writes Quraysha Ismail Sooliman.

Students lose out because registration systems and NSFAS aren't on same page

Lack of co-ordination and alignment of stakeholders in the high education sector results in student protests every year, writes Asive Dlanjwa.

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