All tertiary education hurdles must fall

As the business class passengers filed smoothly into the Frankfurt-bound SAA aircraft, I secretly plotted a #BusinessClassMustFall crusade from the discomfort of my economy-class queue, where we had been standing, as instructed, for nearly an hour.

The seditious thought arose as much from my aching lower back as it did from my growing sense of guilt about leaving the country when the #FeesMustFall students protests were at their height.

The signs were there throughout 2015, but few foresaw that the student protests would erupt with such fury. Fewer still seem to have developed a firm grasp of the decades-old antecedents and the larger objectives of the protests.

At the inaugural Stephen Ellis Memorial Lecture on October??9, less than a week before the #WitsFeesMustFall began in earnest, University of the Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen seemed to dismiss the wave of student protests as “a kind of gangsterism masquerading as progressive politics”. In the same speech, he also prophesied that, because of its (alleged) sole reliance on anger, #RhodesMustFall “was never going to be become a movement”.

Ironically, the Jansen speech, which variously characterised student anger, among other things, as “new”, “black”, “vicious”, “a twisted bundle of raw emotions”, “violent rage” and “unbridled”, hardly managed to transcend the Jansenian anger with which it is riddled.

Whose anger is more righteous then? Who has the right to be angry? Who has the power to set the rules of the anger games?

Nor would I be as self-assured as Peter Bruce was in a recent column, about both the diagnosis and the solution to the #FeesMustFall question. Ismail Lagardien, in his latest Daily Maverick column, has penned a formidable rebuttal. Enough said.

For me, the knowledge that I was swopping the sizzling heat of South African higher education, deep in the throes of the biggest student protests since 1976, for the cold tranquillity of a German university campus, albeit for a short time, made me feel somewhat treacherous.

Once in Germany and on the campus at the Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, my feelings of guilt re-emerged unforgivingly. Living in an apartment at the far end of the large campus, I have to traverse the entire breadth of the university, 25 minutes of brisk walking, daily. Not bad for my mealie-pap potbelly. All along the route I encounter dozens of students and lecturers rushing off to this or the other lecture or lab.

Because education tuition is free in Germany, the students I met had neither any understanding of nor need for a #FeesMustFall campaign.

South African higher education specialists such as Nico Cloete have noted that fee-free higher education is the exception rather than the rule in the world. But statements by South African government officials on the #FeesMustFall campaign, notably the accusation that universities deliberately “blackmailed” the government, sound designed to find scapegoats rather than take charge of the problem.

Germany is one of very few countries in the world that offer fee-free tuition. We cannot, of course, use such countries to generalise.

The sheer size and diversity of the German higher education system makes it very different to the South African system, even before one considers the size of the German economy. The German system has twice the number of students studying in nearly four times the total number of universities of South Africa.

The variety of institutions and their offerings is another point of difference. Besides the more than 100 universities serving 81-million citizens, the German system boasts more than 200 other post-school educational institutions offering a wide range of applied and technical qualifications.

If I were German, my average life expectancy would be extended by at least 30 years. I would be nearly 80% less likely to be unemployed and I would be living in a country with a much-improved Gini coefficient. But I would also have the shadow of World War II and the Namibian Herero and Nama genocides at the turn of the 20th century as part of my unhappy heritage.

Contexts, histories, economies and system differences notwithstanding, if there is one thing that countries such as Germany prove, it is that, although fee-free education may be difficult and costly to achieve overnight, with the requisite political will and the right policy options, it is attainable. If Germany needs fee-free post-school education, South African needs it more.

The Universitas 21 rankings of global higher education systems (as opposed to institutional rankings) does not rate the South African higher education system as the worst in the world, although obviously there is much room for improvement. We have a better-than-average higher education system into which we need to invest much more vigorously and wisely.

One important investment strategy is to deliberately recruit and harness the talent in those sections of South African society that have been excluded from post-school education. Such an approach may be what our generally underperforming system – currently producing fewer than 2?000 doctorates a year – needs to start performing above average.

What we cannot afford to do is to let the system slide. This means we have to root out all the inefficiencies and the mismatch between our developmental needs and the system competencies. The chronic underfunding of the system, in real terms, must come to an end.

The question is not whether there is a bag of money waiting somewhere ready to fund fee-free higher education. We must decide whether we see the post-school system as a critical area of investment. The question is whether we recognise our entire post-school education system, and not just the funding of it, as a national crisis for which strategic intervention is needed, in both the short and the long term.

We can mobilise as many broad-based black economic empowerment deals as possible, count the transformation beans in as many ways as we want, sing the praises of our few globally ranked universities as loudly as we wish, dangle a carrot here and there for white male researchers and a few white female researchers to fight over, and show off the impressive numbers of black students but, unless we can produce an education system that casts a wider and deeper net, a system that enables black students and researchers to succeed, we can forget about national redress, give up on real global competitiveness in the long run, and we can kiss national reconciliation goodbye.

The next Chris Barnard could be playing in the squalor of the Nkaneng settlement outside the Lonmin mine in Marikana. The system is unable to unearth, recruit and enable that kind of Chris Barnard. The next set of JM??Coetzees, now aged 11, are languishing in lavatoryless mud schools in Lusikisiki, Giyani, Caluza and Thohoyandou.

We must confront the spectacular inadequacy of the post-school system and acknowledge that, as it is, it will take us nowhere near where we want to be in the next 15 years.

Tuition funding is an important hurdle to clear for precisely the type of student who needs financial assistance. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme funding model seems to be fast approaching its sell-by date, if it has not done so already. The scheme is run inefficiently and has been for years. The size of the fund’s pot is clearly too small for the national need.

As long as it is designed in a manner that excludes the thousands of students whose parents make neither the fund’s cut nor the commercial bank-loan cut, the nominal growth of the fund over the past few years is irrelevant.

There is a need for a funding model that will assist the talented needy but require those who can to pay for their tuition.

But to ask for fee-free tuition is to ask for the subsidisation of only a small portion of the total cost of higher education. Many students are starving in residences. Others have no money to buy books.

More crucially, if the issues raised by the students are anything to go by, there are many other hurdles, including those that are nonfinancial in nature, over which many students continue to trip before they reach the finish line. All these hurdles must fall.

Tinyiko Maluleke is a professor at the University of Pretoria. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be followed on Twitter @ProfTinyiko

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