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Student protests: The real culprit

Oct 21 2015 07:51
Leopold Scholtz

’TIS the season to be... not jolly, but for students to protest, it seems.

During the past year Rhodes, UCT, Stellenbosch, Elsenburg, Potchefstroom and now Wits have been rocked by student protests. The students have protested against almost everything under the sun – against racism, Afrikaans, imperialist statues, what they perceive to be a colonialist culture, rises in fees, you name it.

The worst hit was Wits, where students just about took vice-chancellor Adam Habib and some of his senior staff hostage. They forced him to turn back an increase of 10.5% in student fees, pending a re-examination of the measure.

Wits is, of course, not the only university where student fees are a bone of contention. Stellenbosch plans an 11.5% increase, while similar hikes are in the pipeline for North West University, Pretoria, KwaZulu-Natal, University of Johannesburg, Free State and UCT.

If I read the signs correctly, these universities too will have to expect militant students to disrupt classes, perhaps violently.

From a distance it is easy to condemn either the students or the universities’ leaderships. But, as with everything in life, this isn’t a black-and-white situation, but one with differing degrees of grey.

On the one hand, one has to say that the students have not helped their cause with the violent and intolerant nature of their protests. Of course, they are young and unwise, as young people usually are. They still labour under the happy illusion that there is a razor-sharp distinction between truth (on which, of course, they have a monopoly) and untruth (of which all the others are guilty).

I know what I’m talking about. I used to be that way too. But I am now older and wiser, and I have learnt in the meantime that life is a bit more complicated than I thought.

Hopefully the militant students will also grow up. Even the European student leaders of 1968, of whom the present militants are perfect clones, have mellowed with the years, and shake their heads wryly when they look back on their youthful stupidity.

At the same time, the students do have a point when they protest against the fee increases. Many of them come from a financially marginal background, and they simply cannot afford to pay more. The fee hikes would make it impossible to continue with their studies.

The other side of the coin is that the universities have little choice. In an article in City Press, Professor Habib showed that Wits’ utility bills went up by 13% to 18% this year, while the rand/dollar exchange rate fell by about 22%.

Can one fault the universities for wanting to pay their bills?

But this brings one to the crux of the matter. The sad fact is that government is ducking its responsibility to invest in education.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have several times asserted that the basic point of departure for South Africa to become a success story is for government to make sure that education is put on a sound footing.

Railing against the wrong target

All the countries which have proved themselves successful – Europe, Singapore, Taiwan, to a growing extent mainland China, and others – started by investing heavily in education. Of course, simply throwing money at the problem will not suffice. What you need is a culture of learning on the part of learners and students, as well as a culture of idealism on the part of teachers.

It doesn’t help to approach the problem from an overly ideological point of view, as Gugulethu Mhlungu did last week in City Press. She rejected universities' “emphasis on ‘excellence’” as “a further indication of the failings of a neo-capitalist system and prevailing apartheid architecture”. She and the radical students are railing against the wrong target.

The culprit is not “excellence”, something for which the students should be profoundly thankful, as this will equip them for the tough world waiting for them out there.

The culprit is government, which refuses to provide sufficient funding to make fee increases unnecessary. For instance, as Habib showed in his article, government provides only R11.5bn of the R20bn necessary to finance the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

The National Development Plan makes provision for 10 million university graduates by 2030. But government does not provide the money for it.

At the same time, an estimated R30bn a year goes down the drain through wasteful expenditure, about which the ANC sends out mixed signals – not in the least by shielding Number One from prosecution against corruption charges.

Just imagine what could be done with all that money in making excellence in education affordable to the poor.

Yet this is exactly what should be happening.

Obviously, a lot of things need to be done correctly if we want to get out of our present downward spiral. But everything stands or falls with the question of education.

Yet many schools are in a shambles, and government seems to be doing its best to drag down the “excellent” schools to the same level.

And it refuses to fund tertiary education adequately. Are we, therefore, destined to become a second Zimbabwe?

This is something the militant students and the government should be pondering.

* Leopold Scholtz is an independent political analyst who lives in Europe. Views expressed are his own.



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