Opinionista Kaymarlin Govender 21 February 2020

The roots of student protest run deep

The problem of access to education for South Africans is a systemic and historical one, with failures seen from the early childhood development phase through to secondary and tertiary education.

The recent spate of student protests at institutions of higher education that pit managers against students on issues of access is not likely to be resolved soon — and the ugly displays of violence and criminality are anything but new.  

Efforts to end the violence through temporary solutions reflect the difficult predicament that the constituencies face in trying to resolve the problem. 

Issues of institutional financial sustainability and lack of student access (payment of registration fees, financial debt, academic exclusions, lack of accommodation) are writ large in this conflict. Acknowledgement of the complexity of issues students and tertiary institutions face is, however, negated by a sector of the student body who choose to damage property, intimidate other students and staff and participate in acts of vandalism. 

Populist framing of violence on campuses in terms of dual-role conflict (managers versus students), the interplay between student issues and political party politics, the self-serving nature of these political agendas and the tactical use of social media to score personal and political points also play into the hands of detractors while the real challenges of students and higher education institutions are relegated to the margins.

Student protest is not new to a democratic South Africa; it has a long history, with the form and character of protests marked by the histories of our higher education institutions (historically black and historically white institutions), and the geopolitics of communities where institutions are located. 

For many poor students with aspirations of entering tertiary education, the stakes are raised with the expectation that success at tertiary level will overcome the traps of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

Education is an important catalyst for economic and human development and is recognised as a fundamental human right. For South Africans, however, tertiary education is also a flashpoint of the structural inequalities still inherent in our education system. Most children growing up in townships will face circumstances of material and structural disadvantage. 

The problem of access to education for South Africans is a systemic and historical one, with failures (in terms of access and quality of education) seen from the early childhood development phase through to secondary and tertiary education.

Fifteen percent of children aged five years old in 2018 were not in school, yet we know that investments in ECD are linked to higher success rates in later phases of schooling. At the secondary school level, the data suggests that working-class and poor black children are “long-term learners”, with a notable percentage of learners remaining in primary and secondary schools long after they should have left those institutions.

Almost a quarter (24.7%) of 20-year-olds were, for instance, still attending secondary school in 2018 (Education ). To compound matters, the public schooling system is still grappling with large classes, lack of books, bad facilities and lack of teachers. 

The DBE matric class of 2019 achieved a pass rate of 81.3%, up from 78.2% in 2018. However, in 2017, 1,052,080 learners were enrolled in Grade 10, yet only 409,906 learners passed matric last year. Only 44.55% of those matrics that passed in 2019 achieved a grade high enough for admission to bachelor’s degrees. 

Despite widespread public knowledge of the low standards even of these levels, more than 180,000 learners were given the impression that they could be successful at the tertiary level of education; hence the vast numbers of applications to TVETs, and universities. Many of these students have financial difficulty and the numbers are well in excess of what these institutions can accommodate. 

The consequences of poor public school education and lack of funds are evident in the fact that 45.7% of youths aged 19 were recently classified as NEET students (not in employment, education or training). This represents approximately three million mostly black youths aged 18-24 years.(Education Statistics).  

If we are to prevent what economists refer to as an “under-education trap”, where families remain unskilled from one generation to the next, then this pattern has to change. 

President Cyril Ramaphosa has proposed a five-point plan to speed up access to the job market over the next five years. For the plan to work, it requires strong vocational training and private sector support.

For many, the early and intermediate phases of learning can ward off the “under-education trap”, with resultant improvements in tertiary education outcomes, skills development and upward employment trajectories. 

In the higher education sector, student access to education cannot be premised on a sense of entitlement. This is an untenable path when tertiary institutions face challenges in meeting key performance markers (good quality education, impactful research and high student graduation rates) in a rapidly changing sector with diminishing resources and constraints on attracting high-calibre staff. 

As members of the higher education community, we have to work hard to promote an institutional culture of inclusiveness, tolerance of viewpoints, accountability and ethical leadership.

It is not helpful to explain the violent protests on campuses in terms of a binary (students versus management), while other key actors (government, political parties, and communities) watch this spectacle unfold from the sidelines. It is a challenge to the government, education leaders, political parties, students and communities to jointly confront and address. 

The statistics are patently obvious, and time to get things right is not on our side. DM

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