The Big Irony: How Our Universities Are Actually a Threat to the Right To Learn

2015-01-25 21:49

If we take just one moment and take our eyes away from the matric results and the accompanying discourse around the sad state of affairs in our basic education system, we will see that universities also have a role to play in further compromising the state of education in this country. This they do by barring (inadvertently or by design) the best minds from getting into the tertiary system while those who are already inside are slowly pushed out.  Bold statements; let’s have a discussion.

The primary exclusionary tool used by universities to exclude the vast number of students from the tertiary education system is finances. Education in South Africa is a pricey commodity that is available only to the rich (or those who can afford to take on extra debt). What is meant to be treated with the same humility and respect that basic, essential products like bread and milk command, education is a luxury good that can only be consumed by those in the higher classes of our society.  This means that last year’s cohort of matriculants won’t just be barred from entering the tertiary education system because of the deficiencies of basic education, but because they simply cannot afford to enter. And those who are already in the system stand a good chance of not being able to come back this year, not because they failed their preceding year of study, but merely because they cannot afford to.

Put another way, we live in a society where it is an acceptable norm for people to advance to senior stages of their academic life only because they can afford it and not because they necessarily deserve it and this norm shuts out so many deserving minds.

The way universities are set up is that they are the biggest “tenderpreneurs” in the market. They provide a service to the government and extract billions of Rands in subsidies in return. These subsidies clearly fail to satisfy the insatiable appetite of these giant institutions and students still need to fork more money over those billions. (In fact, university fees are so high that many students do not even have the faintest idea that the government pays up to half of their fees.)

Universities, in themselves, are like a big cake where everyone wants a slice of the riches. Culprits waiting on the sidelines for the wealth oozing off the institutions include, among many others, construction companies who benefit from the capital expenditure; researchers who are mostly old, white and male (some of which have credentials earned during or because of Apartheid); and service providers who offer services ranging from cleaning and security to photography. At the heart of this cake you will find cronyism, tribalism and “kickbacks”. Vying for a slice of this cake is precisely why management, senates and councils of some universities have acrimonious relationships.

The student is not safe in all of this. Paying upwards of R30 000 per year (goodness) in tuition fees is not enough as they still have to pay a couple of thousands for textbooks, class notes, photocopying, internet, stationery and study materials on top of the tuition fee (making one wonder what exactly is covered by the R30 000). They also have to survive in an environment where everything necessary for their survival and comfort is costly (this includes transportation, meals, sports and recreation clubs and even clothes, liquor and other forms of entertainment). In an effort to properly fit in, comfortably so, the student must incur additional costs. And so, even retailers benefit from this juicy market of university students.

The primary objective of our universities seems, at first, to be the provision of quality education. But what is quality education? This “quality education” is an elusive, ambiguous concept that universities use to generate even more funds. That is, students are lured into the university under the guise of getting the best education money can buy. This concept cannot be, and is not, easily quantifiable. Deeper analysis into this idea of quality education shows us that the term is nothing but good-ol’ branding; put another way, the quality of the education offered by the university is not a function of what or how they teach but how big the name of the university is.

Let me put this into context. Very few people know precisely why a University of Cape Town’s Accountancy degree is better than a similar degree from the University of Johannesburg. However, it is more than likely that the student will choose Cape Town, even though they don’t understand what the difference is. The meaning of “quality” in this case, and many others, is inextricably linked to the name of the University more than what it can do for or offer the student. This is called branding and is no different to how BMW will get its profits over, say, a safer Volvo or a more fuel-efficient Toyota. Universities, much like big brands pump huge amounts of money into their image because this is where money comes from. And this is how quality of education is defined: based simply on how popular or attractive a university is.

But how should quality be defined? Well “quality education” should not be just teaching and learning, but also innovation aimed at making our country, continent and world a much better place. What we pay for at universities is rote teaching-and-learning where age-old ways are taught to us and there is very little development of future leaders or critical thinkers. Universities, in all honesty, just prepare its students for mere employment, and do very little in the way of preparing them for Life. If quality just refers to “employability”, as is the case now, then we deserve to pay much, much less than we do.

It is a small wonder why students, led by organisations such as the South African Students’ Congress (SASCO), take to the streets to legitimately protest for their basic right to learn. However, in further preserving their image and name, universities demonize those who question it and do everything to silence them; they cannot take the idea of their name (and therefore profit-making ability) being tarnished in the media.

It should concern us that we are able to compare our universities to luxury products. But this is the reality in South Africa: education is an expensive, highly commodified luxury and this shouldn’t be so. Tertiary education in South Africa is not charged at its true, lowest sustainable cost (i.e. the bare minimum cost a student should pay for the University to continue surviving), but is unnecessarily charged at a princely premium or mark-up. And so we see that the beloved universities who are oh-so-free from blame and can do no wrong are actually no different to blood-thirsty service providers who overcharge the government and the country in order to extract ludicrous profits. This they happily do while crippling the country and starving it of much-needed education. Isn’t it ironic that the very institutions that are established solely for the purposes of providing education are the same ones that act as a bulwark against that very ideal? But of course we won’t see it, not while we still have the government to blame.

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