/ 6 May 2020

Virus exposes inequalities at universities

Graphic Edu Transformation Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)


As a country whose past is characterised by segregation and its present by a subdued maintenance of the resultant inadequacies, one of our constant problems is the chosen instrument of transformation. We often battle the adverse social and economic conditions we find ourselves in under a deeply divided dispensation; one in which efforts of redress and transformation have fallen through the cracks of inequality and caught in the traction of race and class divides.

The higher education and training sector is a reflection of these realities in our democracy. With the understanding that institutions of higher education exist as segments of, and in correlation with, society — they too are caught up in the societal contradictions.

Education is just as much a medium of transferring knowledge as it is an assertion of power. In the sense that the education one receives is a replica of privilege, or lack thereof, it will inevitably determine the role we will play in society. This is evident in the representativeness in our institutions; one where infrastructure and curricula support is a replication of a highly segregated society. This makes education an enabler of the status quo.

Among other changes, the pandemic has forced the world to migrate towards a virtual reality, and education has not been exempt from this. This situation has sparked a conversation about the accessibility of education. There seems to be a difference between the former homeland and white universities.

In certain demographic setups, the conversation of saving the academic year is often met with the response of reality. This is the very reality that has hindered previously disadvantaged institutions from seemingly simple tasks such as online registration and elections. It has taken these institutions countless trial and error phases to merely begin the discussion of alternative methods of teaching. The reality of overcrowded lecture venues and poor living conditions overrides the efficiency of going online.

The daunting reality for most students in these institutions is one where access to electricity and cellphone network connections is as far fetched as access to running water in the midst of a global pandemic where life depends on how frequently you can wash your hands. Reality becomes even harder to accept when students need to escape having to sharing a communal living area with 12 family members, caring for their siblings when their parent has gone to work and having to complete a three-hour online quiz, or having to weigh up whether to spend their National Student Financial Aid Scheme allowance on food and essentials or on data.

The minister of higher education and training, science and innovation, Blade Nzimande, made an interesting analysis of the current state of the sector in one of his recent press briefings. He alluded to the fact that the means that are meant to help us out of poverty and inequality, and bring about the change we so desperately need as a country, are the very means that stunt transformation. In as much as I understood the sentiments of what the minister was trying to relay, I was baffled at the analogy.

An understanding of the difficulty of coming to terms with a reality that is staring down on our hopes of a society liberated through education should come with acknowledging that this reality breeds on the lack of development. And it is the lack of development that has maintained an untransformed education system that ensures the difficulty of getting an education. But it is not education that is presenting a challenge in this instance (in the sense that it is not the medium of teaching and learning), but the deliberate existence of challenges.

The challenges that exist today, in the midst of a pandemic, are the same challenges that existed in 2016 when students called for the decommodification of education; an education that would assure quality as much as it would be accessible. The pandemic has again made evident an existing phenomenon — one’s access to education is determined by affordability. It is a system that we are so desperately trying to dismantle. The inequality many students face today is no different from the inequality they were subjected to pre-democracy. Nor is the poverty of today any more bearable.

The truth of the matter is that transformation has not afforded everyone privileges, and this has seen the historically disadvantaged institutions left underdeveloped and untransformed. It makes matters worse that the department of higher education has failed at directing a cohesive plan to change this. It has instead created a vacuum in which institutions can exercise their autonomy in whatever way they deem proper.

The lack of an equitable approach in the higher education sector has for years stalled the overall conversion of the sector into one that offers inclusively quality education across the board.

A quarter of a century after democracy, students of predominantly black and disadvantaged institutions are still struggling to gain the concessions that come with freedom — even those who may have benefited from inclusivity still do not enjoy the full exercise of privilege. And at the receiving end of these inadequacies are the same students who are marginalised in society.

Nontobeko Zulu is a master’s law graduate from the University of Zululand