Zuma clearly hasn’t grasped the scale of the crisis facing universities

President Jacob Zuma’s fleeting mention of universities in his speech was merely political expediency. GCIS/Flickr

Many South Africans hoped that President Jacob Zuma would use his 2016 State of the Nation Address to discuss what’s become known as the #FeesMustFall movement. Since late 2015, university students have led a national call for a freeze on tuition fees and substantial changes to how universities are managed. Zuma spent to little time on the subject, and then spoke only in the vaguest terms. Conversation Africa education editor Natasha Joseph asked Professor Suellen Shay whether this was enough - and what Zuma should have said instead.

Was such a brief mention of #FeesMustFall and university funding sufficient?

Of course it is not enough. The social movement led by students rocked the country last year and dominated the media as much as any other news item of 2015. To spend so little time telling South Africans what we already knew was insulting.

How ought the President to have dealt with this issue in his speech? As someone working in the higher education space, how would you have liked to see him tackle it?

I think what I would have liked to hear firstly is less about substantive issues affecting higher education, and education more broadly, and something more about the president himself.

I would like to have seen evidence in his address that he has listened. That he has listened to people on the ground – students, parents, families. That he has listened to workers and vice chancellors. That he has listened to academics. That he has listened to good, hard-working people in his own ministry of higher education and training and the Council of Higher Education. That he has respectfully listened to so many in the country who have given their lives to make South Africa’s education system a success.

Then out of that listening I would have liked to have heard some empathy or even sympathy for the anger and frustration of students, the desperation of parents, the deep concerns and anxiety of higher education managers, the low morale of academics and workers.

But perhaps out of that listening he would also have been deeply proud of the South African higher education system and its many achievements. There are some top ranking, globally recognised universities in a relatively small system.

While critics would say the system in “untransformed”, it depends how and where you look. In some respects our system has experienced a “revolution” in growth of enrolments and demographic change in a very short space of time.

Following from that, I would have liked to see some evidence that the President understands something about the complexity and the urgency of the problems we face. The one minute the President devoted to higher education was political expediency. The problems are historical, deep and far-reaching.

It would have been good to hear him link the importance of higher education to the growth of our economy – that the economic problems we face today can partly be addressed if South Africa invested today in a higher education system that produced a much greater number of highly skilled graduates. In contrast, the current system is highly inefficient, with a low participation rate and high drop out rates.

What about issues of policy, or any potential solutions to the many problems you’ve outlined here?

Of course it would have been good to hear some proposed solutions or proposals. This would not have been difficult to do. South Africa has no shortage of good higher education policy starting with the 1997 White Paper to the more recent White Paper on Post-School Education and Training from 2013. There is also the National Development Plan.

The President could have given just some small reassurance that he knows those policies, he knows what commitments we currently have to fulfil. What I would have liked to hear is that he has pulled together the best of South African minds, including student leaders, alongside international experts to advise him on a clear strategy of implementation - which of these commitments do we need to prioritise now in 2016 and how?

From what I heard last night, it feels like the higher education sector is on its own. It will need to find visionary and insightful, courageous and bold leadership within its own ranks. And also, if it succeeds, that might be in spite of the State.