/ 9 March 2023

Why the latest student protests were predictable

September 04 2019 Following The Rape & Murder Of Uyinene Mrwetyana, Uct & High School Students Protested Outside Parliament In Cape Town On Wednesday Before Moving Down To The Cticc Where The World Economic Forum Is Being Held To Call For President Rama
Students protest outside Parliament in Cape Town. Photo by David Harrison

Once more protests have erupted in our universities concerning the right to education. They arise from a range of issues which include registration fees, the restrictive admission policies affected by student debt, accommodation and housing, food and hunger, transport and other necessities in a learning environment. 

Even more fundamentally, they concern the much-vaunted claims about the “transformation” of universities and relationship between the university and society. Once again, we see the possibility of more shut-downs and violence signalled by the use of “security” guards and pepper spray, interdicts and condemnations — and the inevitable resistance that this will bring from students.

As we had argued previously, the present round of protests is entirely predictable. During and after the earlier episodes of #FeesMustFall — sometimes cataclysmic and violent —  we wrote that:

it was inevitable that the promise of “free education” would come back to haunt the government. That’s because leaders fail to understand what’s really at stake in the demands for genuinely free quality education for all. University administrators expected the government student Funding Agency — the National Students Financial Aid Scheme — to solve the problem of affordability

But the scheme, which as the organisation monitoring tax abuse has noted, has spent more than R166 million on office rental space, (an average of R74 000 per employee per year) despite cutting back on subsidies for student accommodation

NSFAS will not resolve the fundamental question students continue to place before the nation. And no amount of goodwill and the charitable work of individuals, philanthropies, SRCs and agencies trying to fill the gap will resolve it sustainably either. 

At the end of 2021, student debt had increased to R16.5 billion and will continue to spiral upwards at the present rate. The effect of the proposed profit-generating loan scheme will simply deepen the pockets of billionaires (and the institutions they control) and increase the indebtedness of the poor and marginalised as we can see from the US, where student debt has ballooned to unimaginable proportions and is referred to as generational debt.

All this confirms, again, that those in power have learnt very little from the past and will continue to cling to the capricious hope that somehow the problem will go away. 

Yet the underlying reasons for the students’ struggles are no less than a continuation of the same fundamental causes provoking the same consequences. They are a combination of the austerity policies of the government, to which university executives have acquiesced, the ill-fated logic of university corporatisation and the absence of any sense of democratic accountability to the wider publics of the university, especially, but not only, to the communities of the most marginalised in our society.

We warned against the grudging and opportunistic application of the fee “exemption” applying to some students only on the false assumption that it would be regressive to apply “free education” universally. We set out the arguments why this was bound to fail [Vally, S, Motala, E and Maharajh, R (2018) Education, the State and Class Inequality: The case for Publically Funded Higher Education in South Africa in Southall, R (ed) New South African Review 2016. Braamfontein: Wits University Press.]

Now even policy-makers proclaim that they are concerned about the fate of the “missing middle” — that cohort of students who are not being supported by student aid — exactly what we had warned would be an inevitable consequence of government’s prevarications.

 For the great majority of students the present situation engenders numerous insecurities and traumas, a consequence of not knowing what will happen next, the often thwarted attempt to complete university studies in order to get a job to repay debt, including a host of other socio-psychological effects on students, and indeed on their teachers and supervisors.  

The failure to appreciate the implications of ignoring the compelling case for free quality education for all as set out in our and other submissions to the Heher Commission, will only deepen the subjugation and marginalisation of those communities most vulnerable to the laws of the market privileging (once again) only the socio-political elite while entrenching unequal relations between rich and poor. 

Austerity is possibly the most powerful instrument in the hands of such elites who are turning societies into rich picking grounds for the appropriation (and expropriation) of the public good through the cruel and unthinking logic of the power of global elites, including financial institutions who benefit from the interest paid on student loans.

University leaderships, who ought to have seen these consequences from at least the protests of 2015, appear to be blinded  by their roles as managers of the process of knowledge corporatisation. Their hopes lie in the absence of memory about what is inscribed indelibly in the consciousness of students and the intergenerational knowledge they bear. 

Universities should not renege on their responsibility to submit to the  validating criteria of the public good — that is, the right of citizens in a democratic society to demand that those in power are open to democratic, public accountability. For universities, given their much-proclaimed role in the defence of intellectual freedom, it demands a critical orientation to the power of fiat and requires their commitment to public knowledge production and education untrammelled by the disfigurement of corporate injunction. 

It demands the acceptance and promotion of a wider, more enduring and conscientious commitment to public accountability. 

Students and those who support them have every right — in fact, a duty — to oppose the draconian regimes of globalised power and its trenchant effects on society. 

So too must the academics who are also subjected, as precarious labourers, to the vagaries of hierarchical regimes of control over knowledge. Theirs is the duty to prevent the deepening crisis — not only of the fragile democracies increasingly subjected to individual greed, corruption and private accumulation — but to defend and support the aspiration to a genuinely democratic society for all.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.