Stop Politicking With Students’ Future

We have failed the young people. When the #FeesMustFall protests started, the discourse that filled the airwaves was largely critical of university students. Some callers to radio stations blamed the students for abandoning lecture halls. I was dismayed by our own complicity in the ills affecting the students.

I can’t claim to understand deeply the challenges experienced by students. But, one thing I can attest to after interacting with various students over the years, is the lack of amplification of their struggles. The #FeesMustFall protests concerned more than tuition fees.

The students from all social classes came out in their numbers united. We don’t see such acts of courage, unity and selflessness among adult citizens. Ours has become a rotten and man-eat-man society. It is this rot that students would like to see stopped.

Early this year, I had coffee with a former student who dropped out of his postgraduate programme at University of Cape Town due to lack of tuition fees. Theo, who is an Opera singer, narrated the woes of being a university student in South Africa. As a student relying on financial aid, he would constantly be at ATMs, checking to see if the funding had come through. Little did he know that the bank charged him for every ATM balance query!

Despite his predicament, Theo was grateful that UCT administration had allowed him to register for the post-graduate programme despite still owing tuition fees for his honors degree. Theo’s financial struggle resonates with many students across South Africa’s universities. Some manage to raise tuition fees, but cannot afford accommodation and meals.

Education is assumed to be the only means of rising above the social strata in which we are born. As Prof. Craig Calhoun, a renowned sociologist and co-author of Understanding Sociology (with Donald Light and Suzanne Keller) stated in the 1995 book, society has remained profoundly unequal.

The authors explained: “In sociology, social stratification is a concept involving the ‘classification of persons into groups based on shared socio-economic conditions … a relational set of inequalities with economic, social, political and ideological dimensions.’ It is a system by which society ranks categories of people in a hierarchy. Social stratification is based on four basic principles: (1) Social Stratification is a trait of society, not simply a reflection of individual differences; (2) Social stratification carries over from generation to generation; (3) Social stratification is universal but variable; (4) Social stratification involves not just inequality, but beliefs as well.”

Lonmin’s rock drillers in the film, Miners Shot Down, illustrated the principles written of by the social scientists two decades earlier: … “my father was a rock driller, I am a rock driller and my children would most definitely be rock drillers, while my father’s manager’s son is now my manager and his son would most likely be my son’s manager.”

The son of a rock driller and daughter of a domestic worker can take different paths. Education is the mold-breaker, but unfortunately it is not as clear-cut. The rock driller’s son does not stand a chance if the playing field is not level.

The future for those poor girls and boys has been pre-cast and molded in the poverty-ridden strata occasioned by runaway corruption and corporate greed. Poor students like Theo must worry about the next meal or whether their families back home are living or just surviving.

As the #FeeMustFall campaign gained traction, opportunists emerged. My first personal issue is with the Vice-Chancellor of University of Witwatersrand, Prof. Adam Habib. While I respect his right to freely express himself, he should decide whether to remain a university administrator or a political commentator. He should not wear both hats especially when his institution is on fire.

Some academics spend most of their time consulting for corporations and other state institutions at the expense of providing much-needed knowledge to students. The same academics are quick to blame the high number of enrolled students for the rise in tuition cost … “the high numbers have increased our work load…” they would say.

Another opportunistic lot were religious leaders. The Anglican Church decided to show its support for the students’ #FeesMustFall by staging what they called a ‘silent protest’ at St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town on Friday October 23. The move was hypocritical and shameless to state the least.

Pushed to join the church leaders in the vigil were pupils from the Church-run St Cyprian’s Girls School. The double standards displayed by the clergymen are manifested in the tuition fees charged at this school.

In 2015, the tuition fees for Grade Naught to R at St Cyprian was R45,920. The 2016 fees for the same grades have been published to be R49,500, an increase of about 9%. Why hasn’t the Church frozen the increase? The high fees at the school have already created exclusion. It can be argued the school is a private institution, and therefore at liberty to do whatever it pleases. But, as the scripture they use asks; “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?”

When President Jacob Zuma finally announced the inevitable decision to freeze the proposed hike in varsity tuition fees, some economists were quick to wonder where the funds would come from to bridge the gap. Other than talking of possible rise in taxes, they did not offer tangible solutions. Some callers to radio stations called on corporates to come on board without stating how.

As a taxpayer, I would not mind paying slightly more if the additional taxes would be utilised to boost education of students who have already done the heavy lifting. But first there is need for surgical eradication of corruption and corporate greed.

For months we have been examining the procurement processes within the department of health. In our examination of the department’s R29 billion expenditure on pharmaceutical procurement, we have encountered the good, the bad and the ugly of the corporates.

The ugly in the process include corporations lying about their BEE status as well as prices that are inflated shortly after the awards of contracts. The good came in the form of companies such as Austell Laboratories (Pty) Ltd.

Established in 2000, Austell only managed to secure 0.45% of the R29 billion. But a closer look at the company’s operations revealed some innovative schemes worth writing home about. The company sponsors ten medical students annually – this translates to thirty medical students in the three-year cycle of the R29 billion contracts.

The fellows at Austell do it knowing that we cannot have a healthy nation without having more medics. And they do this regardless of whether they succeed in their bids for public contracts.

I am not an economist, but my few cents worth of idea is a campaign that would force private companies seeking contracts with government to contribute towards enhancing university education.

The BEE point system has been abused and eroded with greed. The BEE verification agencies have become part of the problem where they issue tainted certifications. Perhaps it was time to factor in something like Higher Education Levy into Public Finance Management Act, whereby bidders would get certain points for the number of students they sponsor at the universities. For instance, law, accounting, construction, engineering or mining firms seeking public contracts would be funding certain number of students in those respective fields.

Since students have shown their ability to stand for what is right, they would closely monitor the envisioned Higher Education Levy to ensure suppliers do not collude with verification agencies to come up with fictitious numbers of sponsored students. With such a system, corporations would be motivated or compelled to enhance university education.

Another source of funding is the Skills Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). It is hard to justify the existence SETAs - none can claim to have been operating above board. A few players who continue to milk precious resources from the authorities resisted threats by Higher Education Minister, Blade Mzimande, to merge or scrap some SETAs.

The young boys and girls have shown us that it is possible to assert our positions.