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Universities should consider restructuring fees during Covid-19


Asemahle Gwala is Sasco Claude Qavane Deputy Chairperson and a Political Science Postgraduate at Nelson Mandela University

The Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for the higher education sector to rethink much that is ingrained in it.

Generations of students have walked the hallowed ivory towers of our universities. Coupled with the student cards swinging from their necks, the cries of asinamali singabafundi have been an eternal part of the baptism of orientation for as long as our professors have been preaching the ideas of Greek philosophers as opposed to the ideas of natives.

In the context of our country that has been ravaged by centuries of exploitative colonialism, higher education is still seen as one of the very few palliatives that softens the wrath of the capitalist sun on one’s skin after a long day in the fields. 

The figurativeness of my statement may be used to illustrate a point but for many below the breadline it conjectures hallucinations of yesterdays that are trapped in memory forever. 

Those who have been languishing below the breadline for centuries trade assets such as cattle on markets to send their kith and kin to these institutions of higher learning to “liberate” them.

In the hierarchy of economic relations, these universities are the superstructures of an exploitative capitalist base. One of their fundamental purposes is to loudhail the ideas of the dominant class causing epistemological genocide to those of the native proletariat but as coldhearted as they may be, motive forces of change will be the warmth that will transform them to break the chains of oppression.

One of the biggest obstacles that has prevented access to these institutions of higher learning has been their fee structures. While the announcement of free education by former president Jacob Zuma has alleviated a great part of that burden, there are still many students trapped in debt.

Those trapped in debt were part of the missing-middle before the announcement of free education. Loosely, those that form part of the missing-middle are “too rich” for NSFAS and too poor to pay the exorbitant fees of our universities. As a result of the gallant fight of the student movement, many have survived the axe of financial exclusion, but they’ve been accumulating debt since the first day they arrived on campus.

In recent history, there have been numerous attempts from the student movement to hatch ways to clear student debt but many of the campaigns led by our SRCs for debt relief have fallen short of the billions of rands needed to complete the deed. Like a mosquito wrestling with an elephant, the fight against rising levels of student debt has been a one-sided fight.

The Covid-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for the higher education sector to rethink much that is ingrained in it. For example; in the past few years we have seen accredited off-campus accommodation moving from the inner-city to the periphery of townships where universities have no hegemonic control to numb the harsh realities of residing in such desolate space. 

These students spend more time hopping from one mode of transport to another than they spend in lecture halls; the introduction of online learning in the future with the relevant support services may be the way to go, even after the pandemic. As we have seen in the model used by the University of South Africa (Unisa), distance learning is able to accommodate a large number of students. With the skyrocketing number of students that have been applying at universities, increasing their capacity by using a blended form of learning is a thought that needs to be pondered by motive forces of progress for the future.

One of the fundamental questions that need to be answered during the Covid-19 pandemic is the fee structures of our universities in a period where most universities have gone online. Education is a fundamental human right that is supposed not to have a price tag attached to it, but as progressives, we cannot blind ourselves to the fact that a capitalist political economy of higher education exists. In this political economy we have noticed that the price of contact learning is much more expensive than distance (online) learning.

There has been an ongoing debate on the restructuring of fees in 2020 to mirror the online learning component that students have been receiving, which is far less than what they pay for. As we enter into that debate we must be cognisant of the fact that the demographics of South African universities have changed since the announcement of free education, and more students than ever before have their fees paid for by the government. 

The money that is discounted, instead of being sent back to the government, can be redirected to pay student debt at universities and alleviate pressure on those that are already struggling. DM


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