#FeesMustFall:The Legacy

2016-01-11 06:00

As we approach the beginning of the 2016 academic year, it is probably the best time to reflect and consider what 2015 taught us and how that will inform the academic project across South African institutions of higher learning.

It would be impossible to blot out from our memories, the prolific and bold actions of the class of 2015 that protested against the various proposed fee increments slated for 2016. As a result of mounting pressure and a virtual stand-still of the academic programme, The President conceded to a zero percent fee increment. He also said that a task team would be put in place to investigate and address the remaining sticking points that arose from the protest. The implication of this agreement is that the government will partner with university management teams to cover the shortfall caused by the zero increment.

I hate to sound like the prophet of doom and gloom but I have a sneaky suspicion that just like the SABC soapie, Generations, we are going to have a second wave of the protests which we can, for convenience, call #FeesMustFall: The Legacy. The first obvious reason why this second wave of protests is likely to ensue hinges on the government’s commitment to seeing through promises it made to cover the shortfall created by the no fee increment. Protests in general have the effect of fast paced decisions with a slow paced result or implementation of such decisions.  In other words, getting those in power to see through the promises they made when the protest pressure has eased is not guaranteed. My primary concern and worry here is that if the government does not fulfill its promises in 2016, such failure will result in a heightened and protracted protest action by the student body.

The shortfall issue is not the only concern in preventing another protest. The ending of outsourcing has been a silent point from the government itself and this is rather unfortunate given that this is a matter students feel very strongly about. In his official statement, President Zuma noted that the task team would look at ‘other issues around transformation’ but to date nothing more has been said and done from a governmental perspective. Individual institutions have instead taken the lead in negotiating means of ending outsourcing at universities.

In November last year, some universities committed themselves to ending outsourcing for certain services and taking on workers whose contracts were about to expire. In principle, these are great strides for the institutions and they have shown leadership in starting the process to end outsourcing but yet again the challenge is if they will implement these agreements. An even bigger challenge is for the other universities to actually end outsourcing in their own spaces. Government’s response to outsourcing in universities has been to try and avoid directly dealing with it and to leave this in the hands of the institutions which is largely problematic but can be understood in terms of autonomy ( whether this understanding is correct is of course,  a discussion for another time). The real question is how students will respond to university management teams that continue the practice. My gut instinct is to predict that this too will trigger another wave of protests. I am also willing to suggest that 2016 may see the end of about 80 % of current outsourcing practices in universities. The force that is the student voice, has shown a consistent and  persistent quest , thirst and desire for social justice and equality that will bulldoze remaining systems of inequality in South Africa and one can only wait and see how this unfolds in 2016.

Lastly but perhaps more importantly, #FeesMustFall as a movement and as a revolution, is premised on the idea of access. For those of you that don’t get the fuss about varsity fees, allow me to explain. Increased varsity fees means that only those who can continue to afford those fees will continue with their education because money is a means of access. Conversely, if you don’t have money, you have no access to the gates of higher learning. This is regardless of how brilliant you are academically. The reality is that good marks are no longer a means of access. Yes there have been some students who got scholarships for their good marks but those students are a minority compared to the thousands of academically deserving who despite their good marks, fail to further their education.  The current system places a number of access check points that will prove to be problematic in 2016. The first is the administrative charges for applications at some universities. This hasn’t been such an issue but again, an academically deserving student can desire to apply at University X but because he or she lacks the means to pay the fee that accompanies the application, the access to higher learning will be denied. This is the first access point.

The second access point is the registration for that academic year. It is not uncommon to hear of a registration fee of R 9 000 which most institutions would require upfront. Unfortunately, very few people can pay this amount upfront without having to cut down on everything else in their lives. For most sectors, people are taking home salaries of between R10 000 and R15 000 but this doesn’t factor rentals, utility bills, transport and food. Expecting most people to raise this kind of money upfront just for registration is insanity by another name and shows a great detachment from reality. Increases of this fee are of course, further restrictions of access into higher learning institutions. I would however, go as far as suggesting that even the idea of a registration fee is a massive restriction to this access. In my opinion, not increasing the registration fee is not a massive victory. Not increasing the fee is like removing 1 shackle from a person who has 12 more shackles on their legs. What’s the difference? –they still remain bound as slaves to whatever or whoever.  It is a removal or waiver of this fee that will prove to be a massive victory and dismantle the access barriers that currently exist. If we view money as both an access and a barrier then it is easy to see why the less the ordinary citizen has to pay to go to university, the more accessible our institutions are.

The next stage of the revolution will no doubt have to deal with this element of access and again, I suspect that universities will be forced to scrap this fee if they want to begin classes on time. If both universities and government realise that at the crux of the protests was the concept of access, then they can work on measures to ensure that this is dealt with before the start of the academic calendar. The fight was never really about a reduced fee system because students have always complained about how they struggle to get through university. The fight instead, has always been about access and how the average or ordinary citizen can be placed on the same footing as a student from the upper class of society in pursuing further education. Perhaps people overlooked the strategic use of symbolic protests by students but the writing was always on the wall. The very idea of blocking entrance and exit points during the protest redirects us to the notion of access. The same way people got frustrated about not leaving campus at their own will or time is the same way the young people in this country are frustrated about not progressing to the next level of their lives at their will or not graduating on time because they have not paid their fees.

2016 will remind all of us about the importance of access and how there is a growing group of people out there who will no longer be outsiders and foreigners to their own institutions. They want access to what is theirs and they will get it but the question is how they will get it. Whichever way this story unfolds, be rest assured #FeesMustFall: The Legacy is about to school all of us on the power of one, the power of access, the power of the people, the power of frustration and redefine society for the better.

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