Resolving tensions in higher education

2015-10-20 19:52

Does the South African constitution promise more than it can deliver? The truth, it seems to me, is that you are entitled to rights, but only if you are wealthy, or politically connected. The right to free education for all, like the right to equitable healthcare, is unattainable. Non-exclusivity is a myth. This largely commodity-producing country is unfortunately not very inventive, and therefore not wealthy enough to meet all of its growing population’s basic needs. Fighting for democracy is substantially different from building a democratic society. The irony is that higher education offers the greatest hope of building a wealthy and more equitable society.

Part of the problem is the unreasonable expectations many citizens have and many politicians have perpetuated about the mythical society. Politicians have perpetuated this myth during electioneering by making unrealistic promises, and by their glamorous and celebrity lifestyles. Furthermore, they have failed, in many instances, to deliver even basic services to the poor, often due to corruption and incompetence. These factors, to some extent, explain why poor students are desperately seeking economic emancipation through higher education.

Higher education faces a number of tensions. Students need Universities to provide them with access to free or cheaper education, in their area of vocational interest that guarantees them a job. Government need Universities to broaden access, maintain high quality standards and at the same time rely less on state subsidies. Tight-fisted corporations need Universities to prepare students for the workplace for select vocations, to compete in a tough global and local market. Universities need to broaden access and provide quality education and research with limited resources.

The tensions between these paradoxical needs are heightened by a depreciating rand, a stagnant economy, and a growing divide between the rich and the poor. In the real world, unlike the Promised Land, these tensions are not perfectly resolvable, but granted we can still do a lot to manage them better than simply passing the buck to poor students. On the issue of exorbitant fees – the state, generous corporations, the University, alumni and citizens should help manage this better, by absorbing more of these increases. On the issue of transformation, the same stakeholders should help begin the process by funding the development of many more black academics in key skill areas. If these issues require funding through (properly managed) special taxes, well so be it.

However, it is important that students conduct themselves with dignity when protesting about these issues. Despite their frustrations, they need to take the high road and use nonviolent means, even when faced with stalling, intimidation and violence. Resolving tensions in South Africa’s higher education should be achieved by nonviolent and disciplined action. Protesting students have this responsibility.

They are also responsible for choosing scarce skill degrees that make them more employable, so that they can support the education of others in the future. In the real world, moving closer towards resolving tensions requires that compromises and sacrifices be made by all.

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