At some point in the coming days and weeks, the representatives of students and political leaders will sit down to discuss the lowering or complete abolition of university tuition fees. We should presume that they will do so, because both sides will eventually see the need to stop talking at or over each other, and agree that the issue can be resolved, formally.
That is, of course, if the cost of education fees is the only issue, and the protests are not extended to other areas of society. There is a sense of restlessness and impatience in the country, which makes it hard to believe that protests will end with education fees, or indeed any time soon.
Nonetheless, if we are to reach a conclusion to the current crisis, and move beyond intractability, there are a few home truths that need to be stated. We need to acknowledge that the issue is political. We need to accept that any decisions emanating from a settlement will ultimately have to be addressed technically within existing bureaucratic structures. Whatever happens next, though, forces every actor and agent in the current crisis to accept that there need to be compromises. Then there is the great big elephant in the room; who is going to pay for it all?
The issue of tuition fees, or free university education, is a political matter. Actually, it is more an ideological matter. It depends in some ways, on what type of society we want to create; one that is based on the US model, a liberal capitalist order, or, say, the German or Danish, that is a more social democratic model and focuses on equality? My sense is that South Africa is too far along the way towards the US model which spells further disaster.
Either way, social orders do not come in packets of instant potions with instructions to “just add water”. Even if a political or ideological decision is made, the type of change that is necessary to give effect to a new polity requires detailed policy making, legislative processes, public hearings and, of course, budgetary allocation. Time is, then, not on anyone’s side; it moves even while we stand still.
One of the great failures of the post-apartheid period – acknowledged by the most senior and respected political leaders – is inertia in the public service. The old phrase, “we are good at making policies, but terribly at implementing them”, is not that worn out, it seems.
None of the above can happen, though, unless the two sides, (we must assume that there are only two sides) decide to sit down and talk. A new education policy will not emerge from the ether. As it is, we are faced with an apparently leaderless movement on the one hand, and a leadership (on the other) with a rather shrinking following. How do we get these two to sit down, and get to yes?
Getting to yes in bargaining, always, involves compromise. At the moment the toughest demands come from the popular movement. The students want fees to be abolished; all education fees, and with immediate effect. The state has yet to respond.
When we sit down, at home, or on the bus, quietly, and think, most of us may well agree that this just will not happen. It is impossible (well, almost impossible) for two reasons. First, the best policies with the most durable impact and lifespan are not made on the hoof. Time is not on the side of meaningful social change and transformation. Second, the government does not have the money, and the revenue pool is very small.
Even if it were possible to ‘create money’ it will, invariably lead to distortions, price fluctuations, a decrease in the value of money and an increase in the prices of commodities. I don’t care much for the ‘fundamentals’ of macro economics dogma, but in a liberal capitalist system, such as we have, there are very real dangers that come from wanton and whimsical tinkering with a country’s finances. It would be different, of course, if we were already, say, a social democracy and free universal education had been a gradual and progressive policy over the past 20 years.
It would be even more different, and much easier, if we were a communist state, which had no contagion mechanisms that joined us to other states and institutions, and we were not functionally integrated into the global political economy – like, say, North Korea. Under such a polity, we could probably have declared that on 2 January 2016 all education would be free for everyone until they completed undergraduate studies.
Here’s a question before we move on: What happens next? Do students all march to classes happily, and we produce the best-educated generation? I doubt that. Our universities are too far down the road to becoming dehumanised ‘business models’. Development and mentoring of students have been replaced by key performance indicators for professors and ‘performance agreements’ that ignore things like passion for learning, teaching and nurturing as cornerstones of education. There is talk of ‘value chains’ and ‘change management’ that arouses management consultants with straight white teeth, who have re-imagined humanity as a four-square rational being. They are proud to say that their analyses are correct, or that their data is statistically relevant. We just won’t ask if it is at all social relevant …
I am partial to the Finnish model of primary schooling, and the Danish and German models of higher learning. These societies place great value on equality. There is nothing in our current polity, or within human possibilities, which suggest that fees will be abolished by the start of 2016.
All of this is moot, though. We have not sat down to address the issue. Students are unhappy, and rightfully so. Opposition political parties are milking the propaganda windfall of student misery. And the ruling party’s response is that familiar refrain: It’s not our fault. It went off while we were cleaning it …
Hard political decisions have to be made. Compromises have to be made. Solutions have to be found. Even if we went to the extreme of printing money and throwing it at education; someone has to print it – and even that takes time. In the meantime, on campuses and on the streets of the country, the state drew first blood. The smell of tear gas cannot conceal the smell of blood. What will happen next is anyone’s guess. DM