By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Quality higher education cannot be free
Students at South African universities have been engaged in protests, sometimes violent, over the past two weeks or so. Why? They want free education, an escalation from earlier demands that ranged from a freeze in school fees to a reduction. Earlier agitations seem meek now with the benefit of hindsight. Security personnel reacted forcefully when the protests turned violent, firing rubber bullets and on one campus, throwing stones at students. Their heavyhandedness has been criticized. And rightly so. Still, how is it that destroying the very facilities needed for the education you are fighting for benefits you? I am glad all sides are admonishing restraint. More fundamentally, it is important to note that the grievances expressed are genuinely felt. It is true that university school fees are out of the reach of most students. And some poor students who manage to afford the fees – with government assistance in any case – end up struggling to survive, with negative consequences for their studies. When the protests turn violent however, they diminish the prospects that these genuine agitations might force authorities to increase the necessary consideration for poor students. At the beginning of the year, South African president, Jacob Zuma, set up a commission headed by a highly respected former judge, to consider the feasibility of fee-free education. With its report only due in 2017, students have become impatient. Considering the many demands on the fiscus, expectant students may be in for a major disappointment. There is just no way the authorities could provide free education for all South Africans. But for the poor? Those are worth considering at least. Mr Zuma has called a stakeholders’ meeting for this week (3 October).
Poor should be able to go to varsity if they qualify
There should not be any South African who is not able to enjoy the privilege of quality higher education just because he or she is poor. That is, those that manage to gain university admission in the first place. True, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is designed to do just that. That is, provide financial aid to poor students who are able to secure a place. It is well known that students rig this process in any case: some students identify a poorer relative as their guardian so as to qualify for the government-backed student financial aid scheme. Still, it is often overlooked that the major problem is actually not so much the high fees, but that many South Africans, the black and poor ones especially, cannot get into varsity. And sometimes the ones that manage to get in struggle to cope tremendously. Not just financially, but academically. A wholesome approach is required.
Mobilize student majority that wants a negotiated solution
Students at my alma mater, Wits University, voted overwhelmingly – via an SMS poll conducted by the authorities – for classes to resume this week; after about two weeks of intermittent protests that turned violent, forcing authorities to stop classes. This is evidence the majority desire a negotiated and peaceful resolution to the crisis. Classes which resume this week would put that to test. Even so, the major issue that is not enjoying the attention it deserves is university funding. Higher institutions currently get funding from government (grossly inadequate), grants, higher fees from executive programmes and foreign students, and so on. Regardless, they have proved insufficient. There is a need for increased government funding certainly. Treasury officials would be quick to say they are trying to bring down the fiscal deficit. Students would argue that it is not so much increased spending that is required as it is a re-arrangement of priorities. Government officials are probably overpaid some would argue. Some planned capital expenditure are needless in any case, the proposed nuclear build for instance. More importantly, if the authorities are determined to find a solution, they would find a way. But to think they could quell with force what is really a long-brewing agitation would be a mistake. Firstly though, student representatives have a responsibility to mobilize what seems like the majority of students who want a negotiated solution. And they must not allow the few errant ones amongst them inclined towards violence jeopardize the future of thousands of innocent students.
Finish the academic year no matter what
If you have ever experienced the anxiety and toil of a student on the final lap of his academic ‘odyssey’ you would know the terrible anguish some are going through at the moment. It would be a great injustice to them if they are forced to cough out more resources for programmes they had been relieved to think were finally about to be concluded. I don’t even want to imagine the troubles that international students and the part-time ones are experiencing at the moment. Apart from the higher fees they pay, they often have to stay at expensive ‘bed and breakfasts (B&Bs)’ for the duration of their stays. The longer these protests continue, the higher their expenses, a lot of which now they didn’t budget for. Some would probably be stuck or need to borrow money to stay longer in the hope that classes would resume. Some would simply return home so as not to run the risk of being stranded or having no money for upkeep, an untoward experience one would not even wish for an enemy. Bottomline, it is in the interest of everyone for calmer heads to prevail. What is going on at the moment is not in anyone’s interest. Parents and guardians have made fervent appeals for the academic year to be concluded as planned. They should probably start with their wards.
Also published in my BusinessDay Nigeria newspaper back-page column (Tuesdays). See link viz. http://www.businessdayonline.com/en/fees-must-fall-protesters-must-negotiate/