/ 26 September 2016

What’s so crazy about free tertiary education?

A protester throws a bottle of water at a security guard at Wits University on September 20 2106.
(John McCann/M&G)


The term “free” is a misnomer. It’s not free; it’s subsidised by our own taxes because education is a public good and not a commodity.

Transnet alone wasted R600-million on wasteful and corrupt expenditure. SAA and the SABC keep getting big bailouts from government.

At a humanities faculty board meeting recently, Max Price, vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town (UCT), pointed out that these bailouts are nonrecurring expenditures and that increasing budget allocations to universities would be a recurring expense.

Yet, the bailouts to state-owned enterprises have been de facto recurring bailouts for a number of years now. How many turnaround strategies has SAA had by now? A few years ago cartoonist Zapiro visualised the SAA turnaround strategy: a plane doing a full 360° turn to come back to Parliament for more money.

We have 35 Cabinet ministers, the biggest and arguably the least productive Cabinet we have had to date. Some of the most productive government functions have been actively undermined: from the destruction of the Scorpions to the attack on the South African Revenue Service (Sars) and the treasury.

We are also seeing efforts by government to “regulate” (read: censor) online publications, clamp down on news media by means of the Protection of State Information Bill and the Media Appeals Tribunal (which, surprisingly, still seems to be on the cards).

It would appear that government is expending more time, money and energy on investigating ways to curb the free circulation of knowledge, as opposed to generating tangible evidence that it is delivering on its mandate from civil society to provide restorative and distributive justice.

We have exorbitant expenses from President Jacob Zuma’s Nkandla home, a trillion rand nuclear deal being forced on the taxpayer and a R4-billion presidential jet in the wings. We are bleeding money, but there is no money for education?

Now ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe says that if he were minister of higher education, he would shut down universities for six months and do so again if students do not tow the line, notwithstanding constitutional rights to peaceful protest free of police violence.

These views contradict the letter and spirit of the ANC’s 53rd national conference resolutions, taken at Manguang in January 2013, one of which reads in part:

“Implementing free higher education for the poor in South Africa. Noting that:

  • Significant strides have been made in finalising the policy on free higher education to all undergraduate level students from for the poor and working class communities for phased implementation from 2014.
  • A draft policy on free higher education has been completed and the broad consultative process, including the social, economic analysis and impact and consultation with treasury will ensue.

Therefore resolves that:

  • The policy for free higher education to all undergraduate level students will be finalised for adoption before the end of 2013.”

Apart from the arguments that education is essential to economic growth — not least because a bigger pool of professionals will create a bigger tax base — it is important to think about what it means to say that education is a public good and not a commodity.

The call for “free” decolonised education is a call for the kind of education that will interrogate the kind of education system that has produced racialised and gendered class disparities. An education system that “prepares” students for the workplace without questioning what that workplace looks like actually contributes to an ongoing problem that is shaped by neoliberal economic thinking, which assumes that it is an unregulated market that will generate wealth. This is a problem because without fair-minded interventions from a state, which adheres to transparent and accountable governance protocols, to ensure equitable distribution of wealth resources, economic growth means precious little to the economically marginalised majority of citizens.

An education system that does not build the kind of critical literacy that is essential to creating an informed and critically engaged citizen is not contributing to the democratic project. This is what the call for decolonised education means. It is a challenge to scholars to question their own practices as educators and researchers — to interrogate the premises from which we have operated. Think, for example, of our use of the term “research output”, which we report in accounting processes to our universities, like “journal impact factors” and citations, that instrumentalises and commodifies research.

Recently, a UCT faculty produced a report on a survey it conducted among its staff to gauge how they felt about a strategic document produced by UCT management. Responses included claims that staff could not understand the discourse, that it had clearly been produced by humanities scholars and that some of them nodded off while reading the document. These are comments from staff at a leading university on the continent. If some op eds and social media comments by conservatives are to be believed, the calls for decolonisation are leading to UCT’s alleged decline in standards, its inevitable slip in global rankings.

But how do we interpret these claims in relation to the comments by the staff members who were surveyed? Were these staff members unable or unwilling to do research on aspects of that UCT document that they could not understand? How does one read this in relation to arguments about standards at a university that has excellent library and research resources available to staff and students — resources that many of its student activists clearly have been putting to good use?

It seems that critical literacy is an important piece of the puzzle and that some faculties and disciplines have been more invested than others in developing these competencies beyond a mere instrumentalist approach to preparation for the workplace, or an abstract, decontextualised approach to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (which in itself would not be a bad thing if all things were equal, which they are not).

With critical literacy in mind, could it be that the president has no time for “clever blacks” who will call him out on his dubious leadership? Could it be that he and Mantashe have no time for institutions that can challenge their narrow interests? If the president is happy to trash the National Prosecuting Authority, SABC, Sars and the treasury, do you think that he cares about universities?

This brings me to the question: Can you put a price on decolonised education?

Adam Haupt is associate professor at the Centre for Film & Media Studies at UCT.