We see ongoing student protest, despite negotiations, concessions and attempts to return to “normality”.
It appears to be a repeat of the university disruptions in 2015, only worse. Despite warnings of the dire consequences of the present actions, the students continue. They must be committed — but to what?
A final-year student last week said she would be prepared to forgo her graduation in December for the sake of the cause. What cause — free university tuition, total financial support while at university, free tuition at all levels? Are any of these causes just and right, or even the main issue?
Let’s consider some aspects of why authorities have difficulty in acceding to these and related causes.
First, giving something free, over long periods, is a poverty trap, removing the incentives for individual improvement, in effect turning much of the populace into permanent dependants. There is extensive literature on this topic. Free is seldom valued and education actually requires the recipients to work really hard to derive any lasting benefit from it.
But is the present demand for free education at all levels, or just for university students, who having succeeded at school and gained entry to universities and are well on their way out of being poor? Free schooling is necessary, without going into the reasons here, but those reasons don’t apply to the tertiary sector.
Secondly, conditions have not been mentioned. Fewer than 45% of students funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) complete their degrees in five years, according to a 2016 NSFAS report, A Cohort Analysis of the NSFAS-funded Students’, and the percentage is even lower in another study. Therefore, for the majority, the funding is social support until they drop out of university.
What mechanisms are intended to stop widespread abuse (corruption) of free higher education?
The NSFAS grants for degree and national diploma students cover much more than tuition fees. Students who want all this to be free simply want cost-free living for a few years, with no pay-back required. Would free higher education not become yet another project sucking our economy dry?
Thirdly, is the funding available? Even if corruption were eliminated, as called for to provide the funds, where and how would the saved money be used best?
The present unrest draws attention to the costs of not funding free higher education, but the government must also count the cost involved in funding it instead of something else. In 2015, Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande said: “To resolve the immediate shortfall of an estimated R2.6-billion required to cover the 0% fee increase, we are working out exactly what different sectors will contribute. From our side, we have identified sources of funds that can be reprioritised, obviously at a cost to our other planned programmes.”
In rough terms, with continued inflation, twice R2.6-billion is needed for 2017, or the same as in 2016 plus allowing fees to increase by 8% as announced. Free university tuition will cost more than 10 times that much — and that’s just for tuition — every year onwards.
Finally, half the universities (including universities of technology) in South Africa are already technically insolvent, so just matching the present funding is insufficient.
The best expenditure would be on good-quality basic education. It would produce a broad cohort of literate people capable of contributing to society, and enable the best to go on to tertiary education, probably with NSFAS-type loans.
Better basic education is important also in that, for the same number of tertiary students, it should reduce tertiary drop-out rates generally, and make more effective use not only of the fee-funding but also the roughly equal funds the government spends directly on the universities.
But we must accept that the protesting students are not interested in these arguments. They increase and broaden their demands, even to the extent of appearing to be failing to negotiate in good faith. So, if the cause is not education or higher education, what is driving the protests?
I propose the driver is a lack of trust in the politicians and all those who support them, including all in authority at the universities.
The politicians of the ruling party have for years promised free education, free housing and services, free health and a way out of poverty. Despite broad-based black economic empowerment, RDP housing and favourable employment conditions for labour, delivery of a way out of poverty has not matched the expectations created by the promises. Additionally, corruption and inefficiency have undermined the values on which society depends. The authorities no longer inspire confidence or trust.
The students are frustrated. They are not wise to the ways of lobbying, the mechanisms of parliamentary portfolio committees, or other forms of peaceful political engagement. Just like children throwing a tantrum, unable to negotiate their perceived needs, the students turn to slogans — fees, land, jobs — and to protest, intimidation and violence.
Their frustrations cannot be resolved in days or weeks. The present trajectory leads to a lose-lose outcome, with probably a long-term disruption of education, interruption of the supply of professionals, frustrated school-leavers, and even possible closure of universities for extended periods and the loss of academics.
Private security, the police or even the army (as in other countries) — smacking a frustrated child — cannot placate the frustrated students. Many academics share those frustrations, but universities do not have the financial resources to meet the students’ demands.
Can nothing less than changes at the top of government convey a sense that the students’ frustrations will be addressed — and give students hope and a justification to allow a return to functional education?
Trevor Gaunt is an emeritus professor and senior scholar at the University of Cape Town.