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Protesting students can be commended for refocusing attention on education

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We are still very close to the events on our campuses over the past weeks. Time will tell the full significance of the student protests against increasing university tuition fees.  

Although the active uprising by students caught many by surprise, the issue of rising costs in higher education – with the effect of financial exclusions – is not new.  

Universities, as publicly funded institutions, have increasingly been caught between the devil of diminishing state subsidies in real terms and the deep blue sea of rand depreciation and rising costs. Unlike businesses that can diversify their services or products, universities have little room to move. 

The consequence has been that the burden of higher costs has gradually shifted onto fee-paying students, at a rate well above inflation. Only a few universities have the clout to ensure a substantial ‘third-steam’ income, while reserves are in most cases ring-fenced to cover liabilities like leave pay-outs, post-retirement medical benefits and future capital expansion. 

It is not that the state was unaware of the problem. A new funding formula is in the final phase of design. But time has caught up with the process and the student demands for immediate relief threw the proverbial spanner in the educational works.  

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has good intentions, namely to assist academically deserving students that are poor, as determined by a means test. But NSFAS is beset by four problems: Funding is inadequate to cover even this specific group of students; repayments have been far below expectation; the central administration of the funds has ended in an operational nightmare; and lower middle class students, who are also financially constrained, are not eligible for this funding.  

It has been proved by studies of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that ‘investment’ by the state in higher education yields some of the highest ‘returns’. These returns are purely financial (graduates pay taxes for 40 years after university), but returns are also social (stable incomes create social stability) and economic (more highly educated people potentially contribute more to job creation and growth). 

Although South Africa cannot afford free higher education for everyone, a higher investment would be wise and – under the pressure of the current situation – is inevitable. This might be a good outcome in the medium to longer term, forcing the state to relook at its budget priorities. 

There is also a very pronounced political dimension to the student protests.    

The ‘Rhodes must fall’ and ‘Open Stellenbosch’ movements mark a turning point in post-apartheid student politics. Infused with a mix of black consciousness and post-colonial thinking under the broader banner of ‘transformation’, our campuses have become sites of political struggle. As the national political formations – ever opportunistic – move in, events on the campuses will gain national significance. 

The marches to Parliament, Luthuli House and the Union Buildings – all symbols of the current government’s power – introduce a new dynamism into our somewhat stale dominant-party democracy. The governing party knows that what happened in 1968 in Western Europe and 1976 in South Africa and 1989 in Eastern Europe points toward the potential for much more intense power contestation than has been the case up to now. 

This augurs well for our democratic project on condition that such contestations show respect for the law and the freedom of all.  

What are the negative effects of the student protests?

From a university management perspective, it is late in the year and budgets for 2016 will now have to be substantially re-worked. If the state cannot make good on the full ‘shortfall’, the implication is that universities will have to cut their activities to balance their budgets for next year. 

Although students generally acted peacefully, the pattern of protests in South Africa was unfortunately reinforced: rational means rarely get a response. So the alternative is to force the attention of government by illegally occupying spaces, looting, and interfering with the rights of students not involved in the protests.  And then the students – skilfully – make a deal where no one bears the consequences of their actions afterwards. This is not good. 

The last negative effect of the protests is the creation of future uncertainties. Universities work in long planning cycles. A fair level of stability is required to function well. One does not create a good higher education institution overnight. 

We are not sure what the student demands will be next year. Our students have tasted power and victory. Their demands will increase. But the time and financial ability to respond to those demands will diminish.  

Students’ actions might lead to urgent and effective intervention or, alternatively, lead to long disruptions of learning and even to a spill-over into South African society at large. There are enough reasons for dissatisfaction among ordinary people to join the students and demand many other things as well: better police protection, better public transport, better medical care, better schooling, and better municipal services. Further protests will be difficult to contain in the emotional context of an election year.  

But, all in all, our students must be commended for their courage. They assisted us to focus on the most important future asset of this country: our young people who have the ability and potential to lead us into the future. 

Piet Naude (2).jpg
Professor Piet Naudé is the director of the University of Stellenbosch Business School (USB). Prior to his appointment to this position in September 2014, he was vice-rector: Academic at the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in Port Elizabeth. His fields of expertise are ethics and governance.





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