Opinionista Omphemetse S Sibanda 17 March 2020

Students, universities and government need to work together to end campus strife

We need to find long-term solutions to our university problems and challenges. We need to have a conversation regarding some issues while forging an answer to widespread unrest.

Historical debt, the problem of the missing middle, accommodation, lack of throughput and failing students continue to be the methane that fuels fires on our campuses.

In 2018, Universities South Africa (USAf) through its chairperson Professor Thandwa Mthembu, expressed concern that “ever since the advent of the #FeesMustFall and #RhodesMustFall campaigns, our institutions have been marred by higher levels of instability”.

I am reminded of a keynote address delivered at the graduation ceremony of the Durban University of Technology (DUT) by Thami Msubo on 15 April 2013 titled “Sustainable Partnerships between Universities of Technology and Industry in the creation of Entrepreneurial Society”. Eloquently, and in a chilling manner, Msumbo said (my emphasis throughout):

“The role of student representative councils is crucial in any university. The question I have for these councils is this: where in the world have you seen student demonstrations that end up destroying the very physical infrastructure and amenities that we need to provide quality education. It does not matter how urgent your demands are, as a council you must protect and defend the university infrastructure so that the next generation can continue to benefit from it. We need such exemplary leadership. In its absence, chances are that we shall end up not having a university at all once the protests and demonstrations are over.

“I believe that students have a right to voice their grievances with university management, and I believe efforts must be made to investigate grievances and find solutions based on the institution’s ability to afford such solutions. Some of the grievances may not be affordable and this is when the Student Representative Council must display leadership and put the institution and the country first. Universities operate on an approved budget, just like any other company or government department…”

The cross-blaming game continues between university managements and students through their mouthpiece, the student representative councils (SRCs). Blaming was unambiguous during the Newsroom Africa programme Your View with JJ Tabane, with the outgoing Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand, Professor Adam Habib, scolding universities’ SRCs for what he calls almost treasonous violence. Habib’s position was subsequently expressed in a Daily Maverick article titled “Unpacking the university funding crisis – confronting our collective failures”.

This is a great article by Habib, particularly if you had the benefit of his narrative on Your View with JJ Tabane. But, I disagree with any approach and/or intervention that is lopsided and which assigns responsibility for the mayhem on our campuses only to the students and the ineptness of the South African Police Services (SAPS). The SRCs allege that university management is complicit in the past and the current state of instability on campuses. This is one of the elephants in the room that must be addressed head-on, without the deflection of attention on students’ activities.

It is for everyone to see that students are suffering the effects of the unrest. Particularly suffering are students from our poorest communities and historically black universities. These are students who continue to suffer marginalisation, both in terms of socio-economic status and academic performance.

There is one common denominator in all these strikes. Money and other resources (including properly competent human resource/human capital and management) are the roots of the challenges facing universities. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the universities’ differentiated funding model are not helping either. Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2020 Budget speech alluded to the government’s spending on education as part of its plan, “Towards an Economic Strategy for South Africa”. This gesture is a welcome intervention to mitigate financial and related challenges in the South African education landscape.

Another important development is by Professor Thuli Madonsela and her group, which launched a fundraising campaign #Action4Inclusion, which is aimed at eradicating financial exclusion at universities. This too is welcome, and should be replicated across other universities.

The economics of financial management (planning and accounting) of organisations will tell you that fat cheques alone are not enough. For instance, while the universities’ differentiated funding model is well known, for many the funding process may be anything but transparent. Our students may be clueless even as to how their universities’ budget is operated and spent.

I do not want to venture into the calculations and budgetary permutations because, even with my 22 years in the academic environment, which includes positions as HoD, school director, and executive dean (acting) at Unisa, all of these can be a “blank box”. The expansion of higher education in terms of the number of new public universities and first-entrant students in the system where public universities are dependent on government funding compounds the problem, in my view. Before long, the funding per student head may be decreasing or halved in real time.

The issue of transparency in government’s university funding and in how universities manage their coffers was addressed instructively in the 27 February 2020 UK report titledMaking Universities Matter: How higher education can help to heal a divided Britain”. The UK report followed a survey conducted across universities to investigate challenges in education including funding challenges. It revealed a very interesting evolving practise of UK university students not only demanding money, but also wanting to understand how universities are funded and how the funds are used.

“Universities understand that today’s students are keen to know more about university finances and in particular about how their fee income is spent, but to date accessible and easy-to-comprehend information has not been consistently available across the sector,” states the report. The executive summary of the report makes statements that in my view, resonate with the position of SRCs in South Africa:

“There is a danger that universities continue to be out of step… Universities need to be part of that conversation and reach out to parts of the country who have felt left behind by education and economic opportunities,” the report states.

The UK report picks several commonalities with the South African university landscape. It addresses, among others, “a series of policy ideas that could be implemented relatively swiftly and would make a material difference to the way universities think about their roles and the way Government manages its relationships with the sector”. What role do we see ourselves playing as universities and university managers in South Africa, particularly given the yearly start of the academic term crisis? But most importantly, what role do our students see themselves playing to normalise their tertiary education environment?

Interventions such as #Action4Inclusions must come with a carrot and a stick for our students. Students must do what they entered university for: study, pass and get qualifications. On student progression, the UK report is steadfast that student progress is non-negotiable:

“We are not going to compromise – on widened participation and continuation rates – we will not accept that these characteristics go hand in hand with poor outcomes.”

The UK report does not leave it there. It calls for the heightening of attention and oversight at the ministerial level. “More ministerial-level focus, more stretching targets alongside closer regulatory evaluation and accountability is much needed if systemic issues facing students from disadvantaged backgrounds are to be addressed.”

What makes more sense in this regard is the fact that there should be no overnight fixes to the problem of access and progression. For instance, the 1963 Robinson Report on Higher Education in the UK identified that students from less affluent communities and families faced challenges. Yet, to date, nearly 60 years later, some of the same challenges still exist. The same steadfastness is needed in South Africa.

We need to find long-term solutions to our current university problems and challenges. We need to have a conversation regarding some issues while forging a solution to the widespread unrest. At university level, as the UK report said:

“These conversations should be at the core of central discussions about what universities are for, rather than tucked away in inequality sub-committees or conferences which attract the already converted. There is a need to acknowledge frankly what has worked and what has not, and accept that more bespoke smaller-scale initiatives at a subject or course level need to be tested and then scaled.”

Shamefully, this is 2020 and here in South Africa, we are still struggling with issues of access, transformation and diversity at some of the campuses. South African issues of access and funding are obstinately intertwined with the failing transformation agenda in general. Our universities can benefit greatly from collaborative governance structures such as student success fora and student parliaments. These structures can go a long way towards ensuring that students are involved in making their campuses run smoothly.

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) may consider establishing standing subcommittees and ad hoc subcommittees for the oversight of special problems. In particular, the committees should start looking into putting systems in place for smooth running for the 2021 academic opening phase and student progression in general.

As has been argued elsewhere, others may regard the establishment of committees by DHET as an intrusion into the managing of our universities. The question would then be: Are activities of the universities immune from interference or control by the government? And if so, what does the government do to ensure that the development of higher education is adequate for national needs?

To borrow from the Robinson Report on Higher Education, “the urgent question is whether in the conditions of today the freedom from the control that the universities have enjoyed in the past, and to which such importance has been attached, can be expected to persist unchanged; and whether it can be extended in various degrees to other institutions of higher education”.

The government must also reflect on the so-called “top universities” whose former preferential treatment by past apartheid government administrations, and their geographic concentration of research and innovation support and investment, which continues to suppress development efforts of other institutions. The geographic spread of funds inflow or non-government funding and investment in our universities – including research investment — is underscored by inequalities. The government and universities’ management must urgently reset our education management system including the funding of universities and sourcing their financial sustainability programmes.

The SRCs also have a big role to play in this. Nobody is above the law. Equally important is that nobody is or should be advocating for an embargo of your political activism on campuses that are designed to further the educational interests of students.

My plea to SRCs and students is simply this: do not let the way you engage your universities become the enemy of your noble cause for access to education and sustainable funding. Sustainable education calls upon you to think of the infrastructural needs of the future generations. Senselessly violent protests – provoked or otherwise – are incompatible with your quest for social justice in tertiary education.

Think also of your career path and professional life #FeesMustFall activist Mcebo Dlamini, after being found guilty of public violence and sentenced to two years and six months with a suspended sentence of five years, said “today marked the end of my legal career. The court found me guilty of public violence, thus [sentencing] me to two years six months… Suspended sentence of five years. I will take time to reflect on my future moving forward including my political career. I thank you”.

Consequence management may be career-ending.

To the SAPS and the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA): It is now time to investigate allegations made by people such as Thabo Shingange, SA Union of Students national spokesperson, that some universities are colluding with private security companies to repress student strikes in a manner that would cause anarchy and acts of criminality. The Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSIRA) must also come to the party as the regulator of private security companies. The alleged conduct of security companies or their security officers falls within your jurisdiction. All hands on deck for the sake of the African child.

To political parties: Professor Adam Habib has decried the inaction of political parties when their members stoke violence on campuses. Kehdinga Fomunyam from the University of KwaZulu-Natal wrote in the 2017 issue of Yesterday & Today that student protest and the culture of violence at African universities is an inherited ideological trait. Your voice in the current situation will help debunk the myth that genopolitics is the cause of African students, particularly black and previously disadvantaged students, engaging in destructive and violent protests at universities.

In 2016, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) undertook a series of public hearings into the state of affairs on our campuses and issued an investigation whose report recognised the continuing existence of historical inequalities and patterns of systemic exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination. The SAHRC made several recommendations for corrective interventions and action, but the current unrest suggests that no meaningful change happened despite those recommendations.

This is an opportune time for the SAHRC to conduct a follow-up review to determine if progress has been made in implementing its recommendations. DM

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