The Big Read: How to keep the lights on

23 October 2015 - 02:15 By Jonathan Jansen

"Education is not a right, it's a privilege," insisted my barber as his sharp instrument cut across my scalp. I decided to sit perfectly still and remain quiet, for his blade looked even more menacing than my minister by that name.The context was protests against fee increases at Wits University. #Witsfeesmustfall was a short and intense protest about the costs of tuition on a campus where the vast majority of students are black and mostly from poor families.What has become commonplace at some of the historically black universities - cycles of constant protest and upheaval over the exclusionary costs of higher education - has now spread to several other campuses.We made a promise we cannot keep - that once apartheid ended no student would be denied access to education. A 19-year-old from Tembisa or Thohoyandou knows a degree from a good university is her one shot at escaping poverty. The stakes are high.The government has increased funding for student tuition but it is still not enough as the National Financial Aid Scheme has long exhausted its allocation from the Treasury. Of course students hustle to put together the requisite finances, from bank loans to meagre savings to a working uncle's small contribution; but they try. A fee increase sometimes becomes that bridge too far.What is often missing in these necessary debates is the simple fact that universities are themselves under enormous pressure to keep the lights on, meet the salary bill, maintain old buildings, update laboratory equipment, build more residences, hire more professors, increase academic support for students who are underprepared by the school system, and set aside from their own resources more bursary funds for poor students.And when the state subsidy falls far short of what is required to maintain unprecedented systemic growth in higher education, something has to give in an economy that is not growing in line with our massive social expectations.As more universities scramble to survive, classes become overcrowded to save on lecturing costs, audio-visual equipment cannot be fixed on time, roofs in residences collapse with winter rains and the best lecturers ponder a job in the private sector where they can earn much more money for far less hassle. And all of this against the backdrop of South African universities wishing to offer high-quality degrees with the best scholars on hand in a competitive academic world.Pushed too far, I can safely predict that several of our really good universities will soon join others already in a state of permanent financial crisis from which they will never recover.Neither the students nor the university leaders are the enemy and yet the public humiliation of university leaders is now part of the student performance. Disrupted classes, cancelled examinations, vandalised lecture halls and violence are now common on several large campuses.Let me put my thesis plainly: South African universities are at the start of a serious slide downwards unless something is done quickly. I know of top professors who are planning to leave some of these universities; no serious scholar wants to teach and think and research in a place that is chronically unstable. Middle-class parents will send their children to more stable universities and, if those no longer exist in South Africa, out of the country. And when your top academics and your fee-paying students leave, look to the north and see how quickly promising African universities became empty shells of academic aspiration in the post-colonial period.This is what can be done: One, make undergraduate studies free for first-generation students from poor families through a radically new financial commitment from central government. Two, call on the private sector for a massive investment beyond current commitments towards funding undergraduate studies. This might mean that they restructure some of their investments in general education to enter into partnership with the government for the purpose of a sustainable fund for entering university students. Three, require from university administrators leadership that is open and transparent with students about university finances and, at the same time, competent and compassionate in managing student demands.Looking beyond the immediate crisis, my deeper concern, though, is that these cycles of protest are becoming endemic to the sector and that once the fees problem is behind us there will be other moving targets for student agitation, keeping our universities in a perpetual state of unrest and ungovernability.Those with any sense of the history of post-independence universities know that we should be very careful what we applaud.

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