Universities are still reeling from the #FeesMustFall campaign. Debates continue over how institutions can make up the budget shortfall created by fees not being increased and repairs to damaged property and how to change the culture of destruction and violence that accompanies such protests.
The developments of the past months have sharpened the focus on systemic changes and critical reflection required in higher education. These include not only access to and the distribution of financial resources but also the constructive roles that universities should play to equip students to better manage their finances and to prepare them for productive lives in complex social and professional environments.
South Africa is blessed with a large youth population, many of whom are enrolled in secondary or tertiary education. The public higher education institutions alone have about 900 000 students, according to an estimate by the Centre for Higher Education.
This doesn’t include students in private institutions. This demographic dividend has an unrealised economic and social value, but if it is not nurtured and developed it will be at the nation’s peril.
If we can instil the right skills, change obstructive thinking and encourage appropriate business and social support, the socioeconomic benefits will be a more prosperous and caring nation.
One of the key triggers of the #FeesMustFall campaign was a shortage of funds. The cost of higher education also needs to be addressed at institutional and national government level.
But the youth should also shoulder some of the responsibility and take ownership of their destinies.
Many do suffer dire poverty, but others have significant spending power. The disposable income of this group is about R120-billion a year, according to HDI Youth Marketeers.
Among them the biggest problem is undisciplined consumption and spending patterns. Wasteful expenditure on entertainment, gadgets, cosmetics, branded clothing and fast foods are but some of the areas that require redress and where parents and schools can intervene.
Appreciating the value of money and learning how to manage it leads to the understanding that it can be increased and its value enhanced.
Achieving this depends on fundamental behavioural changes. Learning sound financial habits have long-term benefits. Fixing the poor savings culture of our citizens and curbing the wasteful habits of our children so that we don’t have an adult population mired in debt starts with the youth.
Universities are not just the custodians of knowledge; they have the added responsibility to ensure that their charges are prepared for the life that lies ahead – that graduates are equipped to migrate their skills across disciplines and that degree programmes are aligned with the needs of the marketplace.
All academic programmes should incorporate basic entrepreneurship training. This could include the basics of financial literacy, management and communication skills. These are qualities that will make a material difference in people’s lives.
More formal courses and coaching in entrepreneurship that can stimulate enterprise development will shift current thinking from that of being job seekers to job creators – and hopefully address the enduring unemployment problem.
#FeesMustFall is a clarion call for a deeper, more inclusive, robust debate about the role of universities in addressing systemic social issues that affect not only these institutions and students but also society at large.
Rudi Kimmie is a project consultant at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s InQubate office. He writes in his personal capacity