The Big Read: No such thing as a free lunch

06 November 2015 - 02:28 By Jonathan Jansen

It was one of the saddest moments of my youth - being told by my parents there was no money to pay for me to go to university. There were five children to feed, clothe and keep in school, and always at least one "upcountry" relative living in the small council house, so things were tight. For as long as I can remember, I did odd jobs to bridge the gap between the state bursary for teaching and mere survival.I worked as a postman's assistant on the Muizenberg to Fish Hoek run, which explains my fear of dogs. I heard far too many Madams reassuring us, falsely, that "my dog has never bitten anyone before" only to find myself fleeing down the road with the neatly sorted letters flying through the air.By far the most difficult job I did to raise funds for study was trying to clean the oil out of a huge slab of concrete where trucks parked while being repaired in Main Road, Retreat. My basic chemistry told me that oil does not come out of stone, but that was the instruction. To this day the scoundrel who hired two of us has not paid his naïve student workers.Then there was selling fish for Uncle Japie on one of the corner streets cutting across what is now the M5, near Muizenberg beach. The takings were meagre but the tips helped, as did the snoek dinner made from the unsold fish.At weekends I collected money from customers who bought "on tick" from clothing shops along Wynberg Main Road, and then the weirdest student job of all - repairing wooden boxes for Mr Jacobs so he could resell them to farmers for packing their fruit and vegetables for the market. You sat all day with a hammer and nails putting these crates together before loading them onto trucks.I learnt a few things from these student jobs, and they have stayed with me all my life. One, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Nobody handed you a degree on a platter. I did not beg or steal or demand money or support from anyone, least of all the government. You had to work really hard to get it.I also learned that, by working for my degree, literally, I came to appreciate my education more. It was my degree and the real value of that prized qualification came from personal sacrifice and hardship.When I walked across the graduation stage I owed nobody anything. I felt pride that I had worked for it and made it happen. That would translate into all other aspects of life - the deep satisfaction that comes from making your own life.Of course you had to pay back the money. For every year of funding on that bursary you had to spend a year teaching in a public school. If you decided not to become a teacher you were immediately liable for the full cost of the bursary. In this way the money always returned to fund another poor student so that the system of financing was sustainable.Fortunately, I discovered a love for working with high school students that has never left me, so paying back the bursary through teaching was not something I even thought about as a biology teacher in the senior grades.The word I have heard most often in the past few weeks is "demand". Of course you could simply ask or request or propose, but in our culture of protest you shake your fist and "demand" things for free. Students want more services and demand to pay less, preferably nothing. Most of these demands are reasonable, especially for poor students.But the question I have been pondering these last few weeks is this - what do we lose in a culture of demands where good things must be delivered free of charge, and if that does not happen we behave really badly?Instead of just handing out money how about tying funding to payback commitments? What if every grant or bursary was tied to limited student working hours in the library or tutoring in your discipline?Just a thought.

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