Asked why the #FeesMustFall protests were continuing, presidential spokesperson Bongani Ngqulunga last week told Voice of America that the unrest was largely about a desire to be outrageous. “[T]here’s been a bit of competition, frankly, about who can make more radical and extreme demands,” he said.
This extraordinary theory emerged on the back of the death of Wits cleaner Celumusa Ntuli, the shooting of priest Fr Graham Pugin, chaos unfolding in Braamfontein over the weekend, and increasing reports of violence from both security forces and protesters. Investigations have been conducted left, right and centre: charges of assault, attempted murder, and more recently, Wits students accusing police of abducting student Arthur Muhamelwa and dumping him in an open veld after he was arrested at the weekend.
Acting national Police Commissioner Khomotso Phahlane said on Monday that while police were “not going to be apologetic” about executing their functions, “the management and security within the institutions of higher learning remain the responsibility of the university concerned”.
And so the ball – at least for now – landed back in the universities’ court. A number of campuses remained closed as of Monday, but were offering classes online or at alternative locations, while others opened but under tight security. Despite this, reports of unrest emerged throughout the day. “We are now reaching the point of no return in terms of saving the academic year,” UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price had said on Friday. “[W]e are out of time.”
But university-centred negotiations – even successful ones – are a drop in the ocean. Even if the much-debated issue of decolonisation, which delivers its own complications, is tackled successfully at institutional level before damage escalates too much further; even if adequate sources of funding are found to ensure a negotiated financial solution that is acceptable to all, greater challenges lie beyond the realm of tertiary education. These will inevitably arise after the fundamental demands of the #FeesMustFall movement are met, if they are met. And it is unlikely they will pass unchallenged.
One of the soundest arguments for providing access to tertiary education is that it improves job prospects and reduces poverty. According to StatsSA, two-thirds of adults with no formal education are poor, while this is true for only 5.5% of those with a post-matric qualification. But in a country teetering on the verge of junk status, unemployment looms large regardless. In May, it hit a 12-year high. In South Africa, graduates are by no means guaranteed employment any more. As we head towards an increasing youth bulge, the job market for young people is only going to become more competitive; add a large number of graduates into the pool and it will become even tougher. And while those with tertiary education are statistically more likely to start their own businesses, South Africa is still one of the least entrepreneurial countries in the region. If unemployment continues to sky-rocket, lack of economic access to university will only be replaced by lack of economic access post-university.
This is not to say tertiary education must not be equally accessible to all – it must – but it is naïve to approach the #FeesMustFall demonstrations as though university access is the extent of it. Students (and their allies) are not protesting against economic exclusion and structural inequality only so that they can access campus for three years and then move along quietly when they are confronted by inequalities elsewhere. White men still have the lion’s share of income and job opportunities in South Africa, and #FeesMustFall is fighting, in the long term, for its share. Whether one supports the movement or not, #FeesMustFall is a litmus test for the mindset of the next generation, and it is surely pragmatic to take that into account.
Then there is the issue of secondary education. As it is, South Africa spends more on education – relative to GDP – than any other African country (around 6%). The largest portion, around 21%, is spent on post-school education, and estimates for how much free tertiary education will cost range from R23-billion to R100-billion. Nonetheless, despite the relatively large budget, state funding for universities has fallen, and the standard of school education has been raising concern for years. Earlier on Monday, former Finance Minister Trevor Manuel lamented the fact that by Grade 3, some 60% of learners had still not learnt to read.
Meanwhile, the Southern and East African Consortium for Monitoring Educational Quality (SACMEQ) recently released its fourth annual report. The SACMEQ IV report found that just one third of Grade 6 teachers could demonstrate critical reading skills (77.8% had done so ahead of the SACMEQ III report). Teachers’ reading scores tanked from 758 to 672 in just a year, alongside a drop in mathematics scores from 764 to 757. A senior official from the Department of Basic Education stated in front of the Portfolio Committee that in some cases, “education graduates from university have never been in a classroom”. The school dropout rate, too, is high.
It goes without saying that learners who have attended poorly resourced schools have little chance of competing for access to universities against their more fortunate peers. Moreover, should they be accepted, they will strike a major academic disadvantage which universities are unlikely to be able to remedy if they are already facing budgetary constraints. So, even if economic access is provided at tertiary level, barriers may still remain at secondary level.
South Africans had a taste of what may come, in terms of uprising, when a wave of protests struck schools this year. These learners are the students of the future, and when there is gaping inequality across South African schools, it is unrealistic to expect that there will not be a knock-on effect at tertiary institutions. The crises of basic and tertiary education are interlinked. If teacher training is inadequate at tertiary level, this has major ramifications at school level. Conversely, where foundational learning is impacted, students are seriously disadvantaged at tertiary level. And where students are disadvantaged at university, inequality begins once again. Rinse and repeat.
Access, in other words, will need to be tackled at multiple levels, or lifting economic barriers to tertiary institutions will be meaningless, and #FeesMustFall will simply be replaced by #UnemploymentMustFall, #SchoolsMustFall, and any number of related struggles. There are those who defend the protesters, saying they have every right to be angry; there are others who denounce them as terrorists. On a practical level, philosophical and political positioning doesn’t matter. South Africa has a problem, and focusing on tertiary education – only to abandon the country’s youth on every other level, when they have already declared their dissatisfaction in no uncertain terms – is going to show us just how big that problem is.
Our tertiary students are stuck in an unfortunate sandwich between a failing school system and a failing economy, and the knock-on effect may be calamitous. Rescuing our universities is like giving paracetamol to a man who has been run over. Necessary, but pointless without an ambulance. DM