Tue Oct 25 21:07:30 SAST 2016

The Big Read: Sound and fury of a small minority means nothing - except destruction

Jonathan Jansen | 22 September, 2016 08:11
Former University of the Free State rector Prof. Jonathan Jansen during an interview on October 2, 2013 in Pretoria, South Africa.
Image by: Gallo Images / Foto24 / Lisa Hnatowicz

To the rational mind, the new outbreak of student protests makes no sense.

The minister of higher education's announcement this week provides unprecedented levels of financial assistance to the children of the poor and to the "missing middle", those students too well-off to qualify for government bursaries but too poor to fund their own studies.

All university leaders, and any number of analysts, greeted this official statement with relief.

Not the protesting students. They want free education, period, and so the disruptions, the intimidation, the violence start all over again as this group of activists relish their new-found power - they can shut down a university.

The public has many other issues that hold its attention, such as the deaths of kwaito star Mandoza and veteran journalist Allister Sparks, or the Brangelina divorce. We are not paying attention to what might well be the final nail in the coffin of higher education, and a minority of students are trashing higher education for the poor and the destiny of our best universities. Let's take a closer look.

Many research publication s have shown that across-the-board free education benefits only one group - the middle classes and the wealthy. Or, in even more stark terms, the "free education" demanded by the protesters would widen the gap between rich and poor, causing even greater inequality in a society with arguably the highest Gini coefficient in the world.

But nothing to worry about, we are in an era of post-truth politics, as one commentator called it. In this age of politics as theatre, it does not matter if the lines between fact and fiction become blurred in the spectacle of public performance.

The media so easily claims that "the students" shut down the campuses. Look carefully, and you will see it is a very small minority of the students on campuses with more than 20000 and often 30000 or 40000 students.

So who are "the students"? A fraction of enrolments, a spectacularly noisy few whose contribution to our future is based on media sound-bites rather than incisive analysis.

Even more disturbing, a sizeable portion of "the students" are not students at all, but everything from gangsters to anarchists, who have no connection to higher education.

Which raises the question: how can such a small minority determine the future of the silent majority? They cannot do it without massive intimidation and the constant threat of violence. That is why they storm classes, threaten staff and students, and frogmarch those who want to learn towards a central protesting space.

The minority need a crowd for the media spectacle, otherwise the protesting group looks disappointingly thin.

If a campus-wide referendum were held to ask whether classes should be shut down, a majority would say "no", showing up the fact that universities are being held to ransom by a noisy minority.

But take a closer look at "the students". Their leaders, in most cases, are from the middle class. These are young people who can afford a shutdown. They are privileged and come from good schools. With their social capital they can make up lost time and cram successfully for year-end examinations.

The students whose lives they are busy destroying are the very people they claim to speak for - the poorest of the poor.

These are vulnerable students who form part of that majority who drop out or who struggle to finish a three-year degree within six years. It is the poor student from Thaba Nchu or Orange Farm or Thohoyandou or Mount Frere or Manenberg. For this student, every hour spent in class matters, as do extra tutorials in a difficult subject. The disruption of a day or two or, heaven forbid, a week, could end his or her academic prospects for the year effectively making them part of the millions of NEETs - young people Not in Education, Employment or Training.

The fact that the protests happen on the eve of the final examinations is catstrophic for these students. But who cares?

The minority of protesters can live out their dreams of a self-declared revolution with disregard for the harsh, lived realities of the majority of students.

What the minister has announced in an economy that is not growing and in a society that remains dangerously unequal, is to offer relief to the children of the poor and place, rightly so, a contributing obligation on families who can afford to pay for their children's studies.


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