Out of the turmoil in SA universities: Opportunity

2016-10-15 22:13

The future of South Africa’s higher education does not look promising. With the ongoing turmoil in campuses, the reputation of our universities is constantly being tarnished. With free higher education on its way, expect further harm to our once great universities.

This turmoil reinforces the argument that I have made many times; that when something is a public good, at some point it implodes; because everybody feels entitled to it. Everybody thinks they have a right to do whatever they want in it; because it’s a public good. That, to an extent, explains the chaos we see in our campuses today. And when free education is in full swing, in public universities, expect more disaster that will diminish the quality of higher education. As all interest groups will be continuing to demand their share of a public good.

But in one aspect, this whole mayhem presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs in South Africa. The continuing thuggery, hooliganism, in these public universities will push up demand for private universities. It’s an opportunity for entrepreneurs to start private universities to provide decent, quality education.

Private sector driven education is needed. Because public institutions are not working out; they are not working out. The chaos and the sense of entitlement afflicting these universities are a proof that, it’s not working out. 

A competitive, large, private higher education sector would control prices, reduce the cost of education to government, and provide quality education to many young talented South Africans. Parents would be able to choose which school they want to send their children to – consumer choice. They sure wouldn’t send them to chaotic violent campuses, especially when they have to pay for them.

Of course the most ideal thing we could do, as the first step in our efforts to save our declining universities like the University of Cape Town, Wits University and the University of KwaZulu Natal, would be to do as the former chief executive officer of the South African Institute of Race Relations, John-Kane Berman suggests - privatize all of them, and make them a private good.

If they are a public good and free, chaos and vandalism will take place often, at the expense of decent, quality education. Because everyone will feel entitled to them; politicians, trade unions, student organizations, and other interest groups. 

Most of the world’s leading institutions of higher education such as Harvard University, Yale University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, are all private universities. There are many others around the world. So privatizing our universities would not be a strange thing to do; in fact, it would be the best thing to do.

Of course politicians like Julius Malema and Dali Mpofu would fight to death to make sure that this doesn’t happen. They have interests in public universities, including the pursuit of votes. Even the current minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, a long time senior member of the South African Communist Party, is not a fan of private universities. 

These left wing politicians, along with Cosatu, would galvanize the crowds against privatization of the universities, and threaten to make the country ungovernable. Dali was seen at Wits campus not long ago, fueling students’ riots. In a private institution, I doubt that would have happened.

That private universities are better and peaceful, in comparison to public universities, and that they reduce government’s costs of higher education, doesn’t mean much to politicians pursuing votes.

The situation leaves us with one option - and that is to encourage growth of private universities. There are private institutions of higher learning in South Africa; but almost all of them are colleges that are usually the last resort for those who cannot make it to university. We need more private universities to compete with Monash University and Stenden University South Africa.

A fellow member at the council of the South African Institute Race Relations, Piet le Roux, along with his colleagues, have founded Akademia South Africa – a private university that will hopefully compete with Monash and Stenden. I hope it grows.

Some will ask, “But how will the poor afford private universities? Aren’t they are going to be excluded?” Well, government and the private sector will still sponsor poor students through loans and bursaries to attend private universities. At least the money will be worth it; today it doesn’t look like the money is worth it.

Twenty-two years into democracy, with millions going to bed hungry, with almost 9 million unemployed, we need to get our education right. Quality education is desperately needed to compete in the modern, digital, globalized economy. 

With our universities mired in turmoil and on their way downhill, our great hope is that we see rapid growth of private universities that will offer decent, quality education to talented young South Africans. The ongoing chaos is a great opportunity for entrepreneurs to save our education.

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