South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Op-Ed: The road to destruction of our universities

Op-Ed: The road to destruction of our universities

It would be fair to say that the #FeesMustFall crisis has been looked at from every single conceivable angle, and for all the hand wringing, we are no closer to a resolution. Even if the student protests blow out as the end of the academic year approaches, next year will be just more of the same and it will go on until the universities collapse. Universities are simply not set up to sustain the damage being done to them. By DIRK DE VOS.

Perhaps some respite may come from a permanently stationed security presence on all campuses, but that won’t work. The core university mission of teaching and research cannot continue under these circumstances nor can it continue with an entrenched antagonistic relationship between sections of the student body and the universities themselves.

The intolerable situation means that our best academics, the ones upon which our research university depend for legitimacy, will leave. The late development economist Albert Hirschman, in his book Exit Voice and Loyalty: Responses to Decline in Firms, Organisations and States, describes what happens to institutions or firms when those who can exit the institution do so. “When those upon whom the proper function of an organisation choose to leave, it reinforces the cycle of decline, leaving behind those without exit options.” Prof Achille Mbembe describes what happens and has happened in other African countries:

Those who could not leave were trapped in the fields of ruin their universities had suddenly become. Decaying infrastructure, global intellectual marginalisation, unplanned massification, ‘lumpenisation’ of the professoriate, corruption and bad governance became the rule and academic freedom a pipe dream.”

There is very little support for the idea that the state, with many other competing demands, should fund free tertiary education. While education of any type confers numerous benefits to society as a whole, it also confers benefits to the individual being educated. The problem is that the social benefits are highest at primary and secondary levels and only then at the higher education level. The benefits to the individual work in the opposite direction. Individuals with higher education secure substantial benefits from the investment made for themselves. Moreover, as Professor Nico Cloete points out, South Africa has the highest private return to tertiary education. Nico Cloete is forthright. In a country where less than 10% of the population attends tertiary education, the very notion of no fees is a delusion of our bureaucratic petite bourgeoisie.

There are all types of advice on how to mediate between universities and protesting students some of whom have shown a high propensity for violence and criminal conduct that has surprised many. It has been a frustrating process where student leaders, often without a proven constituency, keep on moving the goalposts, negotiation after negotiation. All the while, university leadership are encouraged to really listen to what students are demanding and to take these demands seriously. It is not just about fees, it is about racial transformation, transformation of the syllabus/knowledge systems, also known as decolonisation.

What if, instead of negotiating and listening, we went one better? Perhaps it is time for those involved to put themselves in the shoes of a student who may also be an #FMF activist. The purpose of doing so is to understand the calculus that drives these end-of-academic-year protests and to understand why they are so destructive. Doing so leads to surprising results and demonstrates the culpability of universities in their own demise.

Let’s start with what universities are seen to do. Depending on how you categorise along the lines of race, gender or age and several other factors, graduate unemployment is relatively low. A paper by Prof Servaas van den Berg entitled Funding university studies: Who benefits? makes the point that graduates are three to five times more likely than a school leaver to find a job. At worst, young graduates have an unemployment rate that seldom goes above 10% and after the age of 30; it is seldom above 5%. Due to high labour market participation (there are very few discouraged job seekers), there is a small difference between narrow and broad definitions of unemployment. Compare this to our overall unemployment of over 25% on the narrow definition and over 35% on a broad definition. The Stats SA graphic below shows the extreme benefit of tertiary education for especially young people:

But it is not just about employment rates. South Africa has one of the most unequal income distributions in the world. Graduates get formal sector jobs and are paid much better. Just above unemployment is a pretty wretched existence in the informal sector. Another Stats SA survey in the informal sector shows that 64.9% of non-VAT businesses made net profits below R1,501 a month.

Research by Professor Philipe Burger of the University of Free State shows how the university funding mix has changed over time. Government funding comprises now comprises 40% of total income, down from 50% 20 years ago. Fees which used to comprise 20% of total funding are up to 33%. Government subsidies represent about R19,000 per student currently enrolled making tuition fees about R30,000 per annum. This excludes living expenses, books and other necessary expenses of being a student. Even managing on just R3,000 a month means that it costs a student at least R50,000 a year to attend a university, but this is the very bare minimum. Add in the government subsidy and other university income, and the total all in funding for the student is at least R100,000 per annum. A four-year degree costs at least R400,000 and most likely much more than that at places like Wits or UCT. It is definitely worth it – but only if the student graduates.

The reality however is that the throughput is dire. No racial group performs that well but it is particularly bad for black students:

More recent figures from research done by the Council for Higher education shows that throughput is still terrible.

More than half of the university students who enrol can’t cope with the subject matter that they are expected to master at university and this cannot be ascribed to lack of fees. This is a tragedy because these students are the lucky few. According to Nic Spaull, of the 100 students who started school in 2003, only 48 wrote matric in 2014, 36 passed and 14 qualified to go to university. Spaull says that 80% of our secondary schools are dysfunctional.

By the end of the year, every student has a pretty good idea about their prospects of passing and way, way too many of them know that they are going to fail. Failing means that they have “no skin in the game” for the continuation of the university project and nothing much to lose. In this position, alienation, marginalisation, insecurity and anger is all there is. There is therefore no point in trying to square the claims of wanting to transform or improve the university environment with the wanton destruction that we see. That misses what is going on.

Imagine any organisation, let’s say a large company, that announces that by the end of the year, 50% of the employees will be dismissed and the prospects of finding other work is minimal. The workplace environment would be just awful and you don’t have to be in Human Resources to understand why. Yet this is what we put young our most promising young people through and we do so at a time of their lives when many of their ideas of how the world works are as yet unformed. Slogans derived from misinterpreted ideas become seductive and get taken at face value. A real life version of the Hunger Games gets played out year after year. Dealing with this is nearly impossible, as Mike Berger writes, discussions on resolving the issues simply open a “Pandora’s box of grievances and demands that” is “infinite”. It is simply not possible, as he says, to keep up “with a populist meme-machine which spews out new issues always one step ahead of (the university administration’s) confused reactions”.

Part of the problem is the incentives created by the university government funding model and our universities’ complicity in this scheme. It’s a complicated formula but in essence, the incentive is towards enrolling students and getting their fees and government contribution and far less towards graduating them. It does not matter much if most of your students are not progressing, there is another wave of hopeful but woefully ill-prepared students that will be washing up at registration week the following year. Even if one makes the argument that more funds should be directed towards lowering the fees of students or even make universities no-fee institutions, you could never justify putting it into a system as wasteful as the one we have. And so the cycle of misery continues. Universities trying to keep their institutional integrity together versus students with nothing to lose if they don’t.

The main problem is the shocking state of secondary education in the country. As Nic Spaull’s research shows, the overwhelming majority of children from the dysfunctional part don’t even get a chance at tertiary education. The functional part is not that good either. Naspers’ Koos Bekker ruffled some feather some time ago when he criticised the standard of education that is provided by some of our elite private schools. That annual national teach-to-the-test assessment, also known as matric exams, ensures that our children are ill-prepared for tertiary education which requires a semblance of independent and critical thinking skills.

In the meantime, our universities are in sharp decline. They were not set up for the massification of tertiary education. As Achille Mbembe warns, the best academics are looking elsewhere to continue their careers. Those just below the top flight are actively working on plan B in the private sector. The alma mater of many of our universities whose children, because of their privileged backgrounds, would do relatively well at university are actively pursuing other opportunities for tertiary education. This certainly helps transform the student body to more closely reflect the wider demographics of the country, but it also entrenches the existing problems, reduces universities’ financial viability and makes the universities’ decline to irrelevance a certainty.

South Africa is not alone with this problem: tuition cost inflation and crushing student debt are an intractable problem in the USA and one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders ran Hillary Clinton close for the Democratic Party presidential nomination. It will be more productive to look at different solutions.

Some solutions in applied disciplines like accounting, marketing, engineering or computer science do not have to be provided just by universities that also do research. Where there are existing solid programmes, these can be extended to accredit other institutions as providers with lower overheads. The key here is the growing impact of online learning in the form of Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Professor Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School suggests that MOOCs represent a “disruptive technology” that will kill off many inefficient universities. He is quoted as saying that “fifteen years from now more than half of the universities (in America) will be in bankruptcy”. To some extent, South Africa has deep experience in distance correspondence learning, with Unisa. Going to a lecture with 100 or more other students in one place can’t compete with the best lecturer in the subject delivering it online.

For obvious reasons, a preponderance of online correspondence type delivery of tertiary education will not necessarily solve the crisis around equity or access to tertiary education. One needs a computer and a fast but cheap broadband connection.

Moreover, if your secondary schooling has let you down, the online environment might be even more alienating. One way to address this is to provide some sort of combination of especially designed online courses that are easy to complete in the first stages to get students up to speed with intensive tutorial support (say, from students who have progressed through the system).

Existing but unsustainable universities, especially the former “bush colleges” and universities outside the main metropolitan areas, could undertake this process themselves and do it gradually. Slowly expand the number of online based courses and combine these with on-campus lectures.

Of course, in all this, we lose a lot. It challenges the very idea of what universities should be. How do we defend the critical humanities in the face of a cost/benefit analysis? What about the core value of academic freedom?. What about South Africa becoming even more dependent on knowledge and knowledge systems developed abroad?

Maybe we should just accept that the university, in its traditional form, is going the way of the newspaper in the face of online news and social media. Universities have unfixable cost and efficiency problems and there is no money to support them. The key is to preserve as much as we can of value and have it co-exist in a different and uncertain future. We should shift the discussion on how we can do this and stop trying to preserve an unsustainable system. If nothing else, the #FeesMustFall movement will force us along this path. DM

Photo: Students walk out of the burned and damaged entrance to the Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s (CPUT) Bellville campus after it was torched overnight during student protests, South Africa, 12 October 2016. A case of attempted murder has been opened after two private security guards were allegedly locked inside a burning building. The student fees issue has intensified across the country with most campuses closed whilst government is yet to respond to the student crisis. EPA/NIC BOTHMA


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