We have betrayed our students

“I was crying after I’d interviewed them,” one researcher of the horrifying report on student accommodation that Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande released this week told the Mail & Guardian.

He was referring to dozens of female students isolated in a tiny hostel in the middle of farmland several kilometres from their university, with no human habitation any closer than their place of learning.

Entirely without adult protection or supervision in the dismal accommodation to which their university, lacking the means to offer them any safer and more humane options, had been forced to direct them, the women were nevertheless “so grateful”, said the researcher, who asked that neither he nor the university be named.

His request for anonymity was motivated partly by facts the report now puts on the table for all to see. On the one hand, we are betraying the promises we made to our young about opening the doors of learning and culture to all, because we cannot adequately support even those few school leavers who make it to university, or not many of them. And if you are, for instance, hungry more often than not, your chances of academic success are slim. On the other hand, there is no easy blame game to play here. The extraordinarily blunt, but also careful, report eloquently demonstrates that many universities are forced into taking measures they know to be dreadful for their students.

Their top executives are not off the hook, however: one of the report’s many revelations is that few of those in charge of student housing are even part of senior management and some are on the lowest rungs of their ivory tower’s ladder. How, then, can they influence any allocation within already impossibly overstretched, ludicrously inadequate university budgets?

But that is only one gust in the storm of questionable political will, piratical private sector practices, deepening divisions of wealth and privilege, and a spineless university leadership organisation on which all vice-chancellors sit.

Topping all that, as well as flowing from it, is the budget. Our more detailed report elsewhere in this edition cites some of the eye-watering financing the report says will be needed to fix all this. As the research team’s leader, University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg, put it to the M&G: “We thought, when we heard this year’s national budget, ‘Well, if the state’s got R1-trillion to spend, can’t we have R100-billion of that?'”

Perhaps above all, though, this astonishing report now gives us much more profound ways of understanding why, every year, violent student protests erupt around the country – at least 40 times between 2005 and 2010, the report says, and, in the past two weeks alone, at the University of KwaZulu-Natal and Walter Sisulu University.

It also helps us understand far better what, in addition to dreadful schooling, makes 50% of students drop out before they complete their qualifications.

So Nzimande’s words earlier this week about “urgent action” were welcome. And no one will forget them, Minister.

Read the other Editorial: Just saying no is not enough

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