The Arab Spring of 2011 was a great reminder that the voice of the youth cannot be silenced. The Arab Spring, it is believed, was a symptom of the dissatisfaction of youth with the rule of local governments, inequality, political corruption, economic decline and demographic structural factors, such as the large percentage of educated but unfulfilled youth within the entire population. In South Africa, which faces similar symptoms, it is not only about youth who are educated, but also about youth who are trying, desperately , to get educated, but are restricted both financially and at other structural levels.
Twenty years after democracy, demographic and structural blockages persist. It was therefore inevitable that the youth would look for a platform to voice their frustrations. While society we does not appreciate the manner in which things have been done protests by students have occurred, the reality is that universities, which are meant to be pioneers of change, have been too silent in the development and transformation of our ‘Beloved Country’.
The right to education, including higher education, is a human right. International human rights law and the South African constitution places an obligation on the state to make higher education progressively more accessible to everyone. However, herein lies the challenge: - by granting everyone access to higher education, it will inevitably lead to:
- Massification of higher education, which is not sustainable.
- The need for higher and better qualifications to find a job – diminishing the value of qualifications in the process.
- The lowering of academic and quality standards to accommodate all , thus providing immense opportunities for private higher education institutions to be established.
By raising university fees without accounting for the decrease in access, the state is neglecting its obligation to uphold the right to education. The fee increase exacerbates the academic exclusion of poor and working class students. It may constitute a human rights violation and will result in not achieving the aims of social justice in our country.
A solution can, however, be found if universities embrace their role as agents of change through holding government accountable, while at the same time not lowering admission standards under pressure, but ensuring that only the most deserving students be given access by following rigorous yet fair admission processes. In addition, universities need to create opportunities for students who have ‘fallen by the way side’ to regain access to higher education at some point in their future. The rule requiring students to apply for exemption on the grounds of mature age is no longer acceptable and universities need to play a role in ensuring that the pipeline of students, regardless of age, are prepared for the rigours of higher education.
It is only human for individuals to want to fulfil their potential. They can however only achieve this if they are given the opportunity to do so. Why must they be constrained as a result of fees and other restrictions? All deserving students across all aspects of diversity, including ethnicity, gender and disability, should be given the opportunity to access higher education. Deserving students are those who, against all odds, can meet the necessary admission standards in the short or long term.
While transformation and empowerment go hand-in-hand, it is common knowledge that our legislative frameworks have failed to facilitate the meeting of these objectives and have thus not achieved the desired outcomes. The youth have now spoken and are refusing to be silenced. They want to “be the change they want to see”. They want to be part of the solution and not sit idly by while the morals of our society decay . To bring their goals into effect, our youth need access to high quality education as it has been proved that there are direct correlations between education, entrepreneurship, GDP growth, and hence employment. As a society, we need to remember that the youth are our future and by listening and being agents, with universities at the helm, we can prevent our own Arab Spring.
Jerome Davies CA (SA) is the CFO of USB-ED and has a keen interest in management education and neuroscience. He is a believer of unlimited human potential and has a passion for education as he believes that education is conduit for the fulfilment of Human Potential. He is a trustee on various Non Profit Organisations that operate in the education space.