26 September, 2016

South African Universities in Turmoil

by Hussein Solomon

The university sector is in deep trouble across South Africa. Confronted with a declining subsidy in real terms from the state over several years, universities have looked to make up the shortfall by increasing student fees. Given the stagnant nature of the South African economy with economic growth in a downward trajectory, the ability of students or their parents to pay higher fees was always questionable. Student groups then mobilized nationally last year demanding that there should be no fee increase. As university buildings were set alight and lecture halls vandalized and students and staff intimidated by the more violent student protestors, government vacillated. University management too dithered attempting to reach compromise with students who increasingly viewed compromise not so much as an olive branch but as a sign of weakness.

Demonstrations at the University of Cape Town (Photo: Tony Carr)

When students marched on the Union Buildings, the seat of the presidency, last year, government panicked. Government promised a zero percent fee increase and set up a commission to investigate the possibility of free tertiary education. In retrospect the establishment of such a commission was simply an exercise in kicking the can down the road. Given South Africa’s small tax base, given the slowing economy, given the other competing social demands, free education is simply not possible.

Last week, the Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Blade Nzimande, announced a capped fee increase of 8 percent for students whose household income exceeds R600,000 per annum. In practice, this mean there was to be no increase in fees for students emanating from poorer households. Despite this students mobilized once more, now demanding that they pay no fees whatsoever. Once again other students and staff were intimidated for wanting to resume their academic activities. Once again violence accompanied protest action across South African campuses.

The chaos engulfing South Africa’s universities however is symptomatic of a much larger set of problems. First, there is an economy in the doldrums. A situation which is to be exacerbated should rating agencies downgrade our investment status as is expected in December this year. In this context, different sectors of society are violently mobilizing demonstrating their unhappiness. It is no coincidence that students are boycotting classes and shutting down universities at the same time when workers are on strike and variously townships are on fire, protesting poor service delivery. Second, the Zuma government does not seem to understand the gravity of the crisis nor does it have the necessary political will or skill sets to respond to the crisis. Those senior civil servants in the Treasury who do understand the extent of the crisis and who do have the necessary technical skill sets to at least contain the crisis are being prevented from doing what they know is in the country’s national interest by a corrupt political elite led by President Zuma dedicated to plundering state coffers. The looting of state resources also robs the government of any morality in dealing with students demands from a position of integrity. How does one say to students that there is no money to meet their demands for free higher education when billions are lost each year as a result of corruption?

Third, there is the issue of the dysfunctional nature of the educational system which practically guarantees failure. Many students emanate from dysfunctional schools not being really taught the skill sets necessary to prepare them either for the world of work or for university. Fearing a confrontation with the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU), government turns a blind eye to corruption, absentee teachers and poor quality teaching generally. Students graduate from high schools and enter universities and find that they do not have the necessary skill sets to make a success of their university studies. Thus, despite valiant efforts on the part of universities with extra tutorials and other interventions, the drop-out and failure rates are extremely high. At the end of the day no matter what interventions universities embark upon, one cannot undo the damage of 12 years of dysfunctional teaching within the first year or two of university education. The dysfunctional nature of the education system is also reflected in the fact that often even those students who do graduate often do not find jobs. The reason for this is that there is a tremendous mismatch between the skill sets graduates have and the needs of the South African economy. Consider the tens of thousands of students who each year enters the humanities and the dismally small number who find their way into the sciences. So graduates leave universities with heightened expectations of a good professional job. Instead they find themselves unemployed or doing menial work for which no degree is required.

We are all failing our youth. To fix this, we need a growing economy in the first instance. We need government and university administrators to come together engaging in a radical overhaul of the entire education system from primary and secondary school to the higher education sector. They need to develop a vision of the South African economy which emphasises high growth and high employment and they need to do this in conjunction with the business sector to ensure that skill sets taught is what is needed for the economy of tomorrow.

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