Opinionista Saul Musker 16 October 2015

#WitsFeesMustFall: Time for free higher education

A week of violent clashes at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, mass protests at the University of the Witwatersrand, and a national student uprising on the horizon. The winds of discontent are blowing, and unless firm action is taken, they will turn into a hurricane.

The past two days have seen thousands of University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) students blocking entrances to the university, preventing the resumption of classes and making their presence felt in demonstrations across campus. Not for decades has the institution seen sustained protests of such a large scale, and the intensity of anger on display has come as a surprise to many. It shouldn’t, of course. South Africa is finally experiencing the consequence of years of inertia in economic and social transformation, and universities have become a key site of resistance to the status quo. The recent announcement by Wits of a major increase in fees for 2016 was all it took to spark a student outburst, unleashing deep frustrations with a structure that perpetuates exclusion and inequality.

The primary target of these protests has been the senior management of the university, and vice-chancellor Adam Habib in particular. “Phansi, Habib, Phansi” has been a rallying cry for demonstrating students who feel abandoned and ignored by the institution. While it is true that the university should be working harder to reduce the need for and extent of fee increases, the true roots of the problem lie elsewhere, in a system that leaves public universities between the proverbial rock and a hard place.

A statement released by Wits in explanation of the increases illustrates the complexity of the problem: “We have to make up our income to cover our expenditure in order to remain sustainable. If we do not do so, we put the quality of our academic project at risk.” The Department of Higher Education and Training provides Wits with a combined subsidy of just under R1.4-billion, while the university’s expenses total just under R5.1-billion. The institution is left to cover the shortfall through other sources of revenue, from tuition and residence fees to donations and investments. With an inflation rate of approximately 6% per annum, a weakened currency and a set of salary increases to finance, the task of keeping the university running (while maintaining its high academic quality) is a difficult one.

Herein lies the problem. The prospect of endangering research output, teaching resources or infrastructure is unacceptable. Equally unacceptable, though, is the exclusion of students who are already struggling to sustain the costs of their education. It is an impossible choice to make.

What, then, ought to be done – and what should the protestors at Wits be agitating for? The quandary facing South Africa’s universities is linked to a serious failure by the government to adequately fund higher education and to ensure that poor students are not barred from academic institutions. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), supposedly tasked with facilitating bursaries and loans for students in need, is drastically under-resourced and chronically mismanaged. As a result, many eligible students remain without the support necessary for them to pursue a degree, and even those who do receive funding often find themselves unable to afford food or academic materials to enable their studies. The situation facing poor students is absolutely dire, and yet the government appears to be oblivious to their plight. The Department of Higher Education and Training spends only R21-billion on subsidies to higher education institutions overall (including universities and every other category), and those subsidies, scheduled to increase by 5%, will not even keep up with inflation and rising costs. This places the public education system under severe and unsustainable strain.

The solution, then, is clear: the government needs to invest significantly more in direct funding for public universities. This is the kind of expenditure that will pay for itself; we face a real and urgent shortage of skills, and a better, more inclusive higher education system is the only way to address that. Money given to universities is money that alleviates poverty, creates employment and drives cutting-edge research and innovation. Indeed, the actual social, political and economic costs of under-investing in higher education are far greater than the additional expenditure this would need. If the ultimate goal of the government is to create an equal and prosperous society, in which every citizen can be socially and economically productive, this is an obvious choice.

Where would the extra money go? Not to German-style tuition-free education for all, of course – the state should not have to cover the education costs of middle and upper-class students who could afford to pay for themselves. It should be made possible, though, for every student who is admitted to university to go to university. In other words, the government should (through greater subsidies and a larger NSFAS programme) cover the costs of all students in need, not just some, and not just partially. It should create an environment in which a toss-up between access and quality need never be made.

This is by no means an attempt to exonerate university management. Nor is it to say that the Wits protests, which have been entirely peaceful, are unnecessary. On the contrary, it is only by shutting down public institutions that the national government can be forced to confront the extent of the problem, and to acknowledge the changes that must be made. This is a crucial battlefield in the struggle for a better and more equal South Africa, and one that cannot be dismissed or ignored. Blade Nzimande, take this as a wake-up call … or else. DM

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