In Act 1 of the famous play Les Misérables, Enjolras and the other students at the ABC Café prepare to launch a rebellion in the streets of Paris during the funeral procession of the MP General Jean Maximilien Lamarque. They set up barricades and they begin to sing a song which has become world famous – Do you hear the people sing? Following the protest by students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) there is a sense that there is a palpable impatience coming from universities across the country. If we listen carefully we can actually hear the students sing. Even if the fees are not raised in at Wits, the conversation about university fees must take place.
In 2014 there were protests in many universities in across the country because the National Student Financial Aid Scheme could not meet the demand from students who needed aid. The same issue emerged again in February 2015 and universities like the Tshwane University of Technology were forced to close in order to quell a situation which had turned violent. Unfortunately, there has been no miracle in the last 24 months by which many families would now have enough income to pay university fees. If anything, it looks like there are job cuts on the way in some sectors. This means there are still going to be more young people in the next academic year who will need aid. That is in addition to those who are already on the aid scheme. We are heading for a gigantic collision, one that university students will not tolerate. I can certainly hear them sing.
There is something to be admired in the bravery of our university students. It is evident that they know that their future is in their hands and they are determined to make their voices heard. To treat students like ‘barbarians at the gates’, as in the case of Wits, or to respond violently to their wanting to be heard is a grave mistake. It points to a failure in strengthening forums of engagement and true leadership. You would have to be a very ignorant leader to be unable to see an imminent protest, especially when you know what the hot button issues are. In addition, when the protest happens it does not make sense that there would a delayed engagement which only leads to the protest being exacerbated.
The student protest about finance is the beginning of the rupture of a bigger, older and festering wound. This begins with the age old South African problem of unemployment and underemployment. The unemployed have no income and the underemployed are paid very little. The underemployed tend to be the likes of gardeners and so on. A child can get by with the basic education provided in a free school. Some of these schools are very good and yield outstanding results. Such children, especially those who pass with a university entrance qualification should find a place in universities if they apply and are accepted. Money should not be a hindrance to them entering university. We cannot even begin to look to their parents for funding because they do not even have enough to cover transportation alone.
Following the discourse on this issue there were at some point some persons who, with great haste, commented that students would not be in such a situation if their parents prepared (by saving) for their children’s future education. This notion is accurate but this issue is tad more nuanced than that. The South African lower- to mid-middle class is very strained. After housing, rates, healthcare, food, transport and other day-to-day expenses, especially if you have more than one child, there is just not enough left. The debt levels are alarmingly high because many people need some financial assistance at different points in the month just to see them through until their next pay cheque. Many families end up borrowing from their own retirement endowments to pay for their children’s university fees with the hope that that they will be able to recoup the amount for its original purpose at some point. The levels of savings are very low and are often met with defaults due to other financial constraints that appear ever so often. Yet with all this some students will not qualify for financial aid because their parents are seen to be earning enough to see them through university.
It is also important to note that here we are talking only about tuition fees. The conversation does not even begin to cover areas like student accommodation, food and transportation for those who commute. These students are then destined for debt. This problem of student debt is a problem for many countries. It is especially disheartening in South Africa when the young professional might not find work soon enough to reimburse the student loan programme for another student to study. In addition, it is a gross injustice that the new graduate is now faced with debt at the beginning of their career. There is no doubt they too are destined for the grind that is the middle-class hand-to-mouth lifestyle. It’s a vicious cycle.
There is a serious conversation to be had about general access to tertiary education and skills training. That conversation should not just be echoing in the chamber of Parliament and legislatures but should reach its ultimate destination – the student who wants to study or be trained. Now more than ever there is a serious need to explore the possibility of free tertiary education. Naturally there will be sectors that want to argue that there is not enough money within the government to absorb university operations and maintenance. In some quarters the issue of money is just a convenient excuse that the government will have to relook at how it distributes and handles the public purse. Tied to this is the realisation that the government will have to deal with the holes in the public purse that are the result of corruption, mismanagement and outright thuggery.
There are others who believe that the expensive university costs are linked to the quality of education and training provided by the institutions. That notion too is gravely flawed because at its core excellent education is about creating a suitable environment for teaching and learning and money is but a small component of that. There is also a view, one that I happen to be fond of, that the principle of graduality will have to be applied in the attempt to implement a free tertiary education system. The government will have consider subsidising students at least for their first degree or training.
It is also important to add that students themselves will have to meet their end of the bargain by producing the necessary results. Failure to pass would mean they would forfeit the subsidy provided by the government. If students want to continue with postgraduate education then maybe the government should not be bound to subsidise this. This could be a step towards free tertiary education. One that I am putting out there with the hope that someone with real power might work with it or around it in order to kick-start this much needed process of responding to issues of tertiary funding.
This problem is one that cannot be wished away. It will resurface often and it will become only louder. The need for decisive leadership is urgent. The type of leadership that will discern the right path towards a tertiary system that listens better and responds comprehensively. We have passed the era of just managing universities and trying to keep them as silent as possible. The need is no longer just for management but also for leadership from all levels of society. When young people feel unheard they tend to be unrelenting in their quest to be heard. They will only get louder. DM