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Fee protests point to a much deeper problem at South African universities

A student at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand sums up the motive for ongoing campus protests. Pontsho Pilane/The Daily Vox

South Africa’s universities are underfunded. This isn’t supposition or opinion: it’s a fact borne out by the country’s own Department of Higher Education and Training.

Now students have had enough. They have organised themselves into protest groups at universities around the country, in some cases shutting down entire campuses and surrounding public roads.

The flash point for this latest wave of unrest was the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, in Johannesburg. I work at Wits and am a member of its Council, elected by academics. I, along with the two student representatives on Council, voted against the institution’s proposed 10.5% fee increase. We were outvoted, although the fee increase has been temporarily suspended thanks to the protests.

So why were we outvoted?

An impossible balancing act

Other Council members, while sympathetic to the implications of fee increases for students, were locked into the objective of balancing the university’s books. This is a statutory requirement – but one that takes no account of massive increases in student numbers and a decline, in real terms, of the subsidy provided by the government.

In this situation, most Council members felt they needed to raise student fees by a figure that would prevent us from going into the red. Some pin their hopes on funding from the private sector to keep the institution afloat in the coming years. But Wits already has the highest proportion of private sector funding of any South African university. We need to be realistic about how much more can be raised in this way.

The money isn’t going to come from the government, either. In his closing speech at a recent sector summit, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande made this very clear. He went on to say he was concerned that universities did not have dispute resolution mechanisms in place. That’s not a hard message to decode.

It is important for all South Africans, both inside and outside the higher education system, to have a clear grasp of where the critical pinch points are when it comes to university funding.

An explosive cocktail

Many of the students entering South African universities are bright but underprepared by schools in townships and rural areas. This compounds the problem of inadequate funding by imposing a burden on already stretched academic resources. It also limits students’ abilities to raise funds by working part time. When you are struggling to pass demanding courses, working to make ends meet will tip the balance and result in academic failure.

Students from the new black middle class may be better prepared having come out of private or well resourced public schools. But their families are juggling competing demands on their resources with limited intergenerational transfer of resources that established middle classes can utilise. Such first generation middle-class families are often supporting a range of other relatives in extended African families.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) only gives loans or bursaries to people whose families earn below a certain income level. That often results in these black middle class students being inadequately funded.

At South Africa’s elite universities, of which Wits is one, a further dynamic is at play. The cost of studying at these universities outstrips the maximum funding made available by the NSFAS. This shortfall can be up to R40,000 a year. This is impossible for poor families to find. Until 2014, Wits was able to “top up” these poorer students’ bursaries with its own money.

But the increasing reduction of state subsidies, as well as changes to some NSFAS policies has made this top up impossible. A senior member of management told me that in 2015 Wits excluded up to 3000 students who met our academic requirements but could not raise the fees they needed.

This is turning Wits and other universities into de facto private institutions. Elite not on the basis of intellectual ability, but on the basis of social class. Good education for the rich and inadequate education for the poor can only divide South Africa further.

There is also a deep cultural alienation among many young black students that isn’t often spoken about. They are called the ‘born frees’ because they were born into a democracy, but they are attending universities that have not transformed nearly enough.

This is pervasive – not just in the white enclaves of Stellenbosch in the Western Cape and the University of Potchefstroom in the North West province. This cultural chasm fuels the resentment of students who are struggling financially and is creating the explosive cocktail that we are now witnessing. Cultural wars have their own dynamics, but resources often frame how these conflicts are played out. In universities, transformation is all but impossible if the focus around the tertiary education sector is on cutting costs.

Polite engagement by university vice-chancellors and councils with government over inadequate funding have got us nowhere. We must hope that this new generation of student activists is heard.

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