/ 22 October 2015

#FeesMustFall: Cavernous contradictions in education and the economy

Three pupils speak about their experiences in schools.
Three pupils speak about their experiences in schools.

“The Doors of Learning and Culture Shall be opened! Education shall be free, compulsory, universal and equal for all children; Higher education and technical training shall be opened to all by means of state allowances and scholarships awarded on the basis of merit.”  This is a clause from a momentous social contract formed sixty years ago-the Freedom Charter. It gave rise to pillars of our democracy and remains instrumental in the architect of a non-sexist, non-racist democratic society. 

Twenty one years into the democratic dispensation we face the consequences of incomplete transformation of the economy. One of the major aspects, which still remain inveterate is higher education; a public good which has callously been commoditised leaving many excluded from enjoying the benefits of democracy. The recent surge in higher education exposes cavernous contradictions in not just an ailing education system but a non-existent correlation between the private sector and the overall developmental agenda of government. These are some of the glaring ramifications of fiscal conservatism policies of the mid 1990’s which encouraged privatisation and outsourcing, now coming back to haunt us.     

There is general consensus among economists from various schools of thought that infrastructure and education are a public responsibility. However, this doesn’t absolve the private sector from playing a role in these sectors, especially on education and skills development. The current economic discourse however is that of capitalist short-termism, where human development and training are considered a cost as opposed to long-term investment.     

The dichotomy of it all is that government and the private sector do agree on skills development, however there seems to be a glaring absence of a common agenda. In countries like Germany for example, the private sector plays an active role in resolving socio economic problems, especially on education and skills development to advance the economy. In South Africa as it stands, the private sector still has a choice on which social problems it solves with government if any, which institutions of higher learning it funds, and given the nature of our racialised capitalism, they have the prerogative of excluding the black race systemically in their corporate succession plans and skills transfer unless it’s a legislative imposition.           

The past 21 years have seen much investment towards expanding access to basic education, subsequently giving rise to the demand for higher education. Universities or overall institutions of higher learning have not physically or systemically transformed though, to accommodate the growth of the student population. The current infrastructure is still based on the apartheid architect, which excluded the African child and never anticipated an era where blacks would be part of the formal education milieu.     

The unintended consequences of this rapid growth in student population is the thriving market of bogus institutions, increased unemployment, growing frustrations of youth left to idle without opportunities post matric and innovative ways of gatekeeping by universities. The problems confronted by students today are not new this begs the question if the current mechanisms in higher education to deal with accessibility in place, are up to task.  We must acknowledge the injections made by government through NSFAS, infrastructural expansion of existing institutions which were historically black institutions; however the existing funding model has not grown, relative to economic growth and the demand for education. We have evidently reached the limits of the post-apartheid deal placed on the negotiation table.    

The irony of the aforementioned is that on paper there are idealistic systems of a qualifications framework that facilitates multiple “entry and exit” points and a portability of skills which enhance viability in the work place, changing careers and economic viability. Yet the reality is that vocational education is still a myth and FET’s and Universities of Technology have been reduced to miniature dispensers of low intensity academic programmes which leave many despondent, post attaining qualifications.  

Even universities have not survived the tide of privatisation reducing academic canons to parade themselves as institutions of preference to corporate SA, where executive programmes with minimal substance and value are commoditized and sold to generate income. This has unwittingly devalued substantial programmes of humanities and overall academia. An admission must be made that changes in higher education have largely been cosmetic failing to deal with substantive infrastructural and systemic deficiencies. What must therefore happen as it seems we are filling a leaking bucket with the current education model?    

A dialogue on higher education and training must be re-opened consistent with government’s re-industrialisation plan, the production sector, skills required in the private sector, and a linear vocational education system which will see the workplace open a learning place for graduates after theoretical training.  

As it stands the risk is that our education system is producing highly qualified unemployed people.  In the 1970’s the average unemployed black person had six years of education. It is now 12 years of education, meaning that the economy has either rendered matric defunct or lower end entry jobs are waning. This demands that the private sector plays an active role not only at the end point but also as an instrumental funder of higher education from the point of entry. The private sector shouldn’t only challenge funds in traditional formal institutions it must assist government in diversifying institutions so that Universities are not seen as the only option.  

This requires a clear skills and training regime consistent with social provisions and economic demands. For example the Reconstruction and Development programme saw huge investment in infrastructure in the form of housing and roads, yet the greatest beneficiaries were capital. This era didn’t produce artisans, plumbers etc. the situation deteriorated with GEAR where emphasis was placed on Foreign direct investment without a simultaneous emphasis on training and development by foreign investors, this surge continues as Chinese make bulk investments in infrastructure yet no simultaneous programme of the same magnitude sees large scale training of young people to get vocational education making them eligible to participate economically in these major infrastructure development programmes. Therefore education, training and skills seem like a responsibility of government yet these are skills and education required by the very same private sector which is thriving economically.         

The current Fees surge is a symptom of a bigger economic calamity. Young people are no longer waiting to see what happens, the bomb has exploded and the ripple effects are manifesting itself in various ways in society. Those that can’t organise are self-destructing in communities through substance abuse and expressing their frustration in service delivery protests. The reason why this country won’t see the Arab spring as yet is because South Africa isn’t despotic or a politically authoritarian society. There are still outlets to vent but the question is for how long and when will the current youth revolt become cataclysmic.       

Change doesn’t always mean progress, history doesn’t always move in a linear predetermined fashion. It’s a product of struggle and balance of forces will determine whether this epoch will have regressive or progressive effects. The current situation could unravel the existing social contract. It could be the inadvertent catalyst towards attacking or dismantling the legitimacy of political institutions tasked with delivering on their mandate. The risk as it stands is a knee jerk reaction which could lead to a subsequent conservatism back lash from the state.    

The African child still bears the burden of apartheid and a brutal system of capitalism which keeps him begging for participation in the economy, begging for education begging for a place on his native land. His conditions induce anger, rage and compel him to fight his way through life from the moment he leaves the comfort of his mother’s womb to the day he lays his ailing being in his grave. In 1976 it was the youth that defied the draconian status quo; as this generation demands its share of its economy, they will defy whoever stands in their way of a decent education, a decent life and realising a social contract for total emancipation from the shackles of poverty, destitution and dispossession.

Gugu Ndima is an ANCYL member.