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Opinionista

Unpacking the university funding crisis — and confronting our collective failure

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Adam Habib is Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.

The ongoing instability and protests on campuses in South Africa highlight the way in which student leadership elevated its short-term interests over a principled political responsibility that would have involved thinking of the trade-offs and subsequent consequences.

The start of the academic year has once again seen universities across the country marred by instability, violence and damage to their infrastructure. A number of institutions have had to close for periods of time and we have again had cases of arson. Just this week, more buildings were burnt at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. The University of the Witwatersrand has also recently experienced an attempt at destabilising the academic programme by a small group of students demanding financial assistance and accommodation. Why is this still the case despite the concessions made by the government?

To begin, we need to unpack where we have come from in order to understand why university funding continues to cause political instability on our campuses. Following the #FeesMustFall protests, two options emerged on solving the crisis. The first, proposed by the Heher Commission, was to offer a loan plan via the banks with the state putting up a collateral in the region of about 10%.

This would have covered all students in the system. There was a downside to the proposal; it would have resulted in a debt for students that had to be paid when they were employed and reached a certain income threshold. Both the student leadership and the ANC’s State Capture crowd opposed it. They demanded a grant and not a loan.

This grant was the second option, but South Africa could not afford a comprehensive grant option to cover all students in need. It would have cost the state an additional R150- to R200-billion per annum to cover all students. The final decision was a full grant (tuition, accommodation, and subsistence) for those with a household income of less than R350,000 per year. This option happened to come from a certain individual who had personal ties to the then-president.

Some may see this as an example of “democracy” in action, but in reality, it is a manifestation of a weak democratic system where decision-making is governed by personal ties and not through the appropriate designated structures as defined by our Constitution.

The advantage of the grant option was that many students would have no debt. However, the downside was that it only covered 50% of students, which left out the “missing middle”. They were too rich for NSFAS, but too poor to pay their own way. Each option had positives and negatives that required hard decisions and trade-offs.

Former president Jacob Zuma – the political opportunist that he is – opted for the grant solution. He wanted to skew the elections for the ANC presidency, but he did not succeed and Cyril Ramaphosa was unfortunately stuck with the decision. This is because he felt vulnerable as a result of his narrow margin of victory. The victorious ANC leadership therefore thought it politically prudent not to reverse Zuma’s decision. Government’s decision, in effect, was determined by intra-party politics of the governing alliance.

The student leadership across the political spectrum also chose to support this decision, elevating their short-term interest over a principled political responsibility that would have involved thinking of the trade-offs and subsequent consequences. It is worth bearing in mind that the government increased VAT by 1% to pay for a part of the grant scheme. Given the regressive nature of VAT, we effectively shifted resources from the very poor to the emerging middle class. The overall result for higher education meant that the “missing middle” remains unfunded, the accommodation crisis persists, protests continue and political instability endures.

If we had gone for the loan scheme, the entire system would have been funded and we would have had stability. Yes, students would have had debt, but we would have had the space of five to seven years to enable growth and free up parts of the higher education system.

This could have of course been tied to economic growth rates. This is what those who oppose a loan scheme do not appreciate. They assume that all those who advocate the measure are simply interested in the enrichment of the banks. But a more imaginative approach could, in essence, see the loan scheme as a midwife to a freer higher education system in the historical circumstance where public resources are not freely available.

The essence of the strategy then would have been to imagine free higher education as part of a process over a decade or two. However, political expediency won the day. We wanted everything at once without the necessary trade-offs.

One of the issues that remains a problem within the system and affects university funding is students who continue to fail. NSFAS’s funding rule is N+1 which allows for only one failure. If you fail two or more times, you lose your bursary and can no longer cover your costs. The recent protests at Wits over fees and accommodation is as a result of those who failed two or more times. Wits, like many, if not all, of our higher education institutions has put in resources to provide additional academic support to students to ensure that they succeed. There still remains a minority of students that continue to fail despite the support.

The solution to the problem is for universities to implement the N+1 rule, but the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and the broader student leadership oppose this and demand the funding of students who repeatedly fail. Is it fair to society for a student who repeatedly fails to be supported by public funds? Should we not demand accountability from students who repeatedly fail? Should they not dedicate themselves to their studies and pass? Is it not selfish to demand to stay in the system while continuously failing? For every student that does not leave, another cannot come in.

One final matter – the reason our campuses are burning is also because the SAPS does not do its job properly. The police are reluctant to make arrests but rather focus on protecting the rights of protesters and never the rights of ordinary citizens who are often threatened and violated. How can there be so much arson and destruction at our public universities without anyone being arrested?

The crisis of violence in society is a direct result of the incompetence of the police service. Student leaders often say we are restricting their right to protest. However, the Constitution has very explicit rules about protest. It does not allow for violence, assault or destruction of property. These are criminal acts – not political activism – and should be dealt with accordingly. But the SAPS stands back in the face of political thuggery because it fears the political repercussions from party apparatchiks and leaders. Democracies require good policing. When police fail to do their job, the poor in society suffer.

In summary, the crisis we now confront is a collective failure. It is our political failure to make the right choices and the lack of accountability of both failing students and anarchist student leaders. Our student leaders need to heed the simple lesson of Amilcar Cabral, a revolutionary they are fond of quoting:

“Hide “nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories…” DM

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