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Demonstrations since late 2015 under the #FeesMustFall campaign have disrupted teaching at many South African universities with buildings and libraries damaged as a result of arson and vandalism.
Weeks of violent demonstrations in 2015 forced President Jacob Zuma to rule out fee increases this year, but universities warned that another freeze in 2017 would damage their academic programmes.
But Thabo Shingange, a leader of #FeesMustFall at the University of Pretoria, writing in The Daily Maverick, says the reason campuses are burning and are in complete chaos, is not because students are united under a common principle. Rather, it is because the poor seek refuge.
“How do we reach a point where free quality education is delivered to us as students? Such cannot be achieved with division in the poor constituencies. This is something party politics in our campus spaces have failed to realise – the need to unite all poor constituencies along a common cause,” he says.
“For far too long, capital has ruled over us through ‘divide and conquer’. Such a strategy can only be effective insofar as we allow it to manifest. Now is not a time to point fingers, but rather a time to unite behind a shared objective,” he wrote.
Professor Chris Adendorff of the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Business School believes the students have a point.
Adendorff says that students in many African countries are funded by their governments on condition that they work their subsidy years off within the government or municipalities. This makes more sense, he believes.
“Not only will we have a win-win situation, but we will sort out the low level of productivity experienced currently by parastatals. If we can work out a system that education is more affordable, we could add to the tax effort of South Africa,” he says.
Of primary concern, Adendorff believes, is that 48 per cent of South African youth is unemployed.
“We need to address this soonest otherwise this form of protest will spread into other forms. In my view, our youth is entitled to good affordable education,” he told The BRICS Post.
Drop in rankings
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings showed that the University of Cape Town slipped from 120 in 2015 to 148 in 2016, although it is still the fourth highest ranked BRICS university.
Of the 25 public Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) that enrolled students in South Africa in 2014, 11 are regarded as ”traditional” Universities, six are Universities of Technology (formerly known as Technikons) and six are Comprehensive Universities.
These HEIs saw their contact enrollments rise from 545,759 in 2010 to 596,824 in 2014 according to the Department of Higher Education and Training data published in March 2016.
In 2014, 54 per cent of students were enrolled for undergraduate degrees, 28 per cent for undergraduate certificates and diplomas, 9 per cent in postgraduate below Masters, 7 per cent in Masters and Doctoral degrees and 2 per cent in occasional courses.
The Universities of South Africa (USAf), which is the umbrella body for South African universities, said in August 2016 that universities have been chronically underfunded for close on two decades.
This systemic underfunding was compensated for by the disproportionate increase in student fees to the point that they are now unaffordable to many who are offered places in the various institutions.
Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande said last week that universities currently face serious challenges in terms of funding, while large numbers of South Africans are currently finding it difficult to access post-school education because of the financial challenges they as individuals or as families face.
“Government is aware of these challenges and takes them very seriously. Indeed, government remains firmly committed to progressively realise free post-school education for the poor and working class, as called for by our Constitution, and to assist middle class families who are unable to pay. This is demonstrated by the creation of the Presidential Commission of inquiry into higher education and training funding, which includes universities, and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, as well as the substantial increases in funding to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme since 2010.” – Nzimande
Unemployed young people tend to be less skilled and inexperienced – almost 86 per cent do not have formal further or tertiary education, while two-thirds have never worked.
The Department’s budget is set to rise to R55.3 billion ($4.08 billion) in 2018/19 from R42 billion ($3.1 billion) in the 2015/16 financial year.
Meanwhile, the government has this year provided R1.9 billion ($140 million) of the R2.3 billion ($170 million) shortfall resulting from the subsidization of the 2016 university fee increase.
More than R4.5 billion ($330 million) in the 2016/17 financial year has been reprioritised to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
“Expanded funding is targeted to support 205,000 students entering universities for the first time or continuing this year, and a further 200,000 students at TVET colleges. This means that a total of 405,000 students would receive government support to access universities and colleges in 2016,” Nzimande said.
“Many of the students entering South African universities are bright, but underprepared by schools in townships and rural areas. This compounds the problem of inadequate funding by imposing a burden on already stretched academic resources,” he writes.
He says that students are further constrained in their ability to raise funds by working part time. Such employment would come at the sacrifice of passing demanding courses, thereby resulting in academic failure.
“Polite engagement by university vice-chancellors and councils with government over inadequate funding have got us nowhere. We must hope that this new generation of student activists is heard,” he added.
If the activists are to be heard, so, too, must the academics who want to retain a certain level of autonomy.
Theuns Eloff of the FW de Klerk Foundation, a constitutional advocacy group, told The BRICS Post that the Higher Education Minister did rather well to give back to the universities their institutional autonomy that had been taken away this year when the no fee increase was imposed.
“I am glad that he addressed the issue of the ‘missing middle’, that is the middle class with annual income between R100,000 ($7,391) and R600 000 ($44,351), that are unable to afford tuition fees. I believe this issue was not given sufficient prominence by the mainstream media,” he said.
Helmo Preuss in Pretoria, South Africa for The BRICS Post