Is broader society in denial about the crisis at our universities, or are we just so overwhelmed by all the drama unfolding around us that we have empathy fatigue? And where the hell is our president who should provide some sort of wisdom, vision and guidance during these turbulent times?
I have a pile of marked student assignments sitting next to me as I type. My plan is to go over the assignment with my students on Thursday and Friday when I see them for their lecture. I wonder if I will see my students, and if we will be able to finish the course. I wonder if I will be able to give them the feedback that many of them need so desperately, or whether it will all be written off by a complete shutdown of the university.
Actually, I’m not really doing any calm wondering about whether I will see my students. I’m in a flat panic about the situation at our universities.
I know that, in the grander scheme of things, it won’t be the end of the world if my course isn’t finished. It’s a first year course that runs for a semester. We’ve covered enough for the students to write an exam and, with some smart planning, they can catch up the missed work next year, if the next academic year comes along.
But what about the rest of the students? There are final-year students anxious to write and start their careers as doctors, engineers, accountants, lawyers, teachers and social workers. We know that a shutdown will have a ripple effect, both on outgoing and incoming students.
It’s tempting to place blame for the current catastrophe in higher education squarely on the shoulders of the Fallist students. If we do that, the solution seems simple. Get rid of the Fallist students and their antics, and let the rest continue in peace.
Well, that’s worked out well.
To find a workable solution we need to look beyond the obvious claims for immediate, decolonised free higher education and try to understand some of the deeper reasons Fallists have for their strong commitment to their cause. We also need to look at the role government has played in creating this situation.
There’s the cynical side in me that recognises that this movement is probably laying the foundation for some solid political careers. “Successfully led movement that brought about free higher education” would look good on any CV. However, this cynicism undermines legitimate student concerns and ignores some uncomfortable questions. Why exactly are so many students so desperate that they will sabotage their own future by shutting down the varsities? And, more important, what support and solutions can government and the universities offer to these desperate students?
I would really like to know the academic composition and academic strength of the Fallist students calling for the shutdown of the universities. This would tell an important story about where students need support. Are there a significant number of students on specialised and professional career paths (medical students, engineers, actuaries) taking part in the protests? Or are there a disproportionate number of students doing more general degrees with no promised career waiting at the end?
The former case would point to solutions focusing on student debt and financial struggles during university. The latter case would mean that we need to address student debt as well as student concerns around future employment. It’s a very different issue and needs a very different solution.
I’m also really intrigued about the academic record of the majority of Fallist students. Are there many academically strong students with bright futures ahead of them that are taking part in the protests? If so, calling for a complete shutdown speaks to true ideological commitment at the expense of personal gain. In one light, this is rather admirable. However, in another light, this means that pragmatic solutions might be sneered at, even if it would benefit the struggling students whose futures aren’t as rosy.
Or are many of these students struggling academically. And if many are struggling academically, is this largely due to financial stress, or is it due to other factors such as poor schooling? If many of the Fallist students are struggling academically for reasons beyond the financial, free education would not take away their frustration. What is needed is more academic support, which means that budget and staff cuts would not help these students, and would not stabilise universities in the long run. We could see protests flaring again next year. Academic challenges would also speak to solutions that prioritise quality basic education.
Please note that I am not trying to delegitimise the protests. I’m trying to figure out what is driving certain students to desperate acts. Perhaps I’m asking the wrong questions. That’s fine. Suggest your own questions. But let’s just get some dialogue going about some of the deeper causes of the movement, and use them as guidelines for finding sustainable solutions.
Whatever the causes of Fallism might be, I completely agree with Equal Education’s Tshepo Motsepe that Fallists need to direct their concerns at government. Universities and their staff are not kicking back enjoying the high life. They are working really hard. There is pressure to produce lots of quality research to bring in more money, but at the same time there is pressure to provide a good academic programme to ensure that the university is producing high-quality graduates. The bottom line is that universities need money to offer quality education.
Part of me thinks students are right to say that there is money sloshing around. But the universities don’t have it. Students need to direct their protests at government.
Leading figures have told students they need to go back to their studies. But government needs to take its share of responsibility for the environment it has created in which violence flourishes, open dialogue is quashed and responsibility is evaded. Our president needs to do what he was elected to do – lead a democratic country. This means concerns need to be heard, difficult negotiations need to take place and viable solutions need to be offered.
The media have started focusing some of their stories to look at vulnerable students and the effect a shutdown would have on them. It’s quite late in the game but at least it’s starting to happen. It is important that the voices of the vulnerable are heard. Rich students will be okay. They usually are. Their parents will figure something out. As always, it’s the poor who will suffer the most if we don’t find a solution fast.
Every week seems to bring a fresh crisis in different areas of our political life (never mind the wider world). We don’t know whether to focus on SARS, the Hawks, the NPA, SAA or the SABC. But I argue that as a society we need to prioritise the crisis in higher education right now. We need to pressurise all stakeholders to meet, speak rationally, listen, negotiate in good faith, and find a workable solution right now! The immediate future of our youth, and our country, hangs in the balance. DM
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