When Rhodes University told us it was closing for the day due to student protests about fees, a wave of different emotions awoke my groggy Monday morning mind. I felt relief over postponed deadlines, excitement at the novelty, and confusion over what the hell was happening. Had I missed something?
For many, the eruption of student protest and political action at historically white universities in South Africa in 2015 came as a surprise. But really, my surprise was probably awarded to me by virtue of my white, middle-class privilege. The Fees Must Fall protests which occurred in November and October were the result of confounding factors that had been building up increment by increment. The question was not why or whether it was going to happen – but when.
“…if there is anything that you as students can get together behind, whether you’re black or white or whatever, it is the fees. University fees are too damn high!”
For the academic term leading up to the protests, I had been fortunate enough to be taught a course called ‘the Rise of African Intellectuals’ by Dr. Nomalanga Mkhize, a Historian and academic at Rhodes University. It was a topical course considering the debate around intellectual decolonisation going on at South African universities.
Mkhize showed support for the anti-colonial movements concerning Rhodes Must Fall and the apparent racism and language issues at Stellenbosch. But I will never forget the day she told us that she did not know how to make her course, and our academic year in general, worth the R30 000 plus that we have to fork out for it.
She said to us, “I know not everyone supports decolonisation and that sort of stuff, but if there is anything that you as students can get together behind, whether you’re black or white or whatever, it is the fees. University fees are too damn high!”.
Over the next few weeks I read about the protests over fees happening at UCT, and I followed it with interest as I had the #Rhodesmustfall and anti-racism movements at Wits. But when Rhodes University announced their shut-down it still took me by surprise.
Was Dr.Mkhize some sort of prophet? Probably not. But if she was, she was not the only one. In 2001 Saleem Badat, former Vice Chancellor at Rhodes University, published a paper emphasizing the lack of funding in higher education. There is no doubt that other academics in South Africa had come to similar revelations.
But they were not prophets. They were merely looking right at what was in front of them. The higher education system is facing many obstacles, and it is not just about fees.
At the root of the Fees Must Fall protests were many factors, but I have identified at least four:
- A lack of funding in higher education
- The impact of education (or lack thereof) on students
- Academics and their ivory towers
- “Born frees” and their politics
A lack of funding in higher education
The initial catalyst for the Fees Must Fall protests was the announcement of the fee increase for 2016. Students were outraged at the increase and many found themselves in a state of anxiety over possible financial exclusion.
Many protesters blamed university administrations for the lack of funding for poorer students. But the question of funding is complex. Most institutions of higher learning in South Africa are public, but they receive limited funding from the state in the form of NFSAS.
“….states do not  feel responsible for funding universities. So the burden of fees falls on the students.”
According to Chrissie Boughey, the former head of CHERTL at Rhodes University, NFSAS has generally been under-funded. This is partly because in the global economy “knowledge” is seen as a commodity – something which can be bought and sold for profit.
It is assumed that universities can sell the knowledge they produce. Similarly students earn degrees that can get them jobs and salaries. Boughey said that states do not then feel responsible for funding universities. So the burden of fees falls on the students.
But the blame cannot fall on the state alone.
According to Sally Matthews, a Politics lecturer at Rhodes University, the university can do more despite a lack of funding. The university could make cuts in other arenas of the university, such as salaries, building constructions, books and so on.
“Universities have to carefully weigh up their options and make some very difficult decisions between competing priorities,” explained Matthews.
The impact of education (or lack thereof) on students
Access to higher education and who can access it is important because it is seen as necessary for many jobs in the workplace today.
“In the global economy, only knowledge workers, not labourers, are required,” Boughey explained. According to research by Thiven Reddy, a senior lecturer at the UCT Department of Political Studies, university graduates are linked to higher paid jobs, as well as employment in government.
If only certain groups of people can access higher education, then only certain groups of people can get certain jobs. And following this, only certain groups of people can earn certain income brackets.
“This protest about fees was actually a protest about the distribution of goods in a hyper capitalised global economy. In the protests were challenges to globalisation itself,” she added.
Global capitalism has led to rising global socioeconomic inequality since the 1970s. The gap between the poor and the rich continues to widen. This further perpetuates South Africa’s socioeconomic inequality which was initially ingrained by a legacy of colonialism and Apartheid, and so it manifests itself along racial lines.
“In the protests were challenges to globalisation itself”
This inequality is perpetuated by an unequal access to higher education. According to Boughey, only 12 % of black South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24 years old are enrolled in higher education, compared to 60 % of white South Africans for the same age group.
“[Publicly funded universities] could allow for those who are not wealthy to access education that can result in them changing their own [as well as their families and even broader communities’] position in society,” explained Matthews.
Academics and their ivory towers
Many academics were aware that higher education was resting on uneven legs, and they were concerned about the inequalities that their institutions were perpetuating. But, arguably, little decisive action was done to change it.
“Many academics have responded to the issues raised in the protests (and the protests themselves) by doing what academics do best – thinking, talking, writing”
“The protests shook many academics because we had become complacent,” said Matthews, “We complained, but complied”.
“The students were more effective [than academics] at getting some of the changes needed, or at least drawing attention to them, through their protest action,” she said.
“Many academics have responded to the issues raised in the protests, and the protests themselves, by doing what academics do best – thinking, talking, writing,” she added. She explained that many student activists will argue that academics ought to be more decisive and less reflective.
“I am not sure where I stand on this as I think careful reflection is very important, but I also understand the impatience of students who don’t have time to wait until academics have carefully thought through how we can best change our universities,” she re-iterated.
Born frees and their politics
The youth in South Africa have had a low voter turnout for elections since 1994. But in recent years, those born in 1994 through to 1996, the first “born free” generation, reached university for the first time. And they have had their say.
“I don’t think it is quite right to say that young people are apathetic just because they don’t vote”
Matthews explained that universities are important spaces for social change because they provide a platform for people from different backgrounds to engage in collective action and make demands.
“I don’t think it is quite right to say that young people are apathetic just because they don’t vote,” Matthews explained, “Young people have been finding different ways [such as protest action] to express their engagement with the political issues of the day.” The protests show that many young people are interested in politics and want to push for political change.
“If elections and party membership do not appeal to young people, I think we need to take a hard look at the failure of elections and party politics to bring about real political change,” she explained.
The future trajectory of higher education
No matter what side of the protests people fall on, they are generally uncertain about what the future of South African universities will look like.
“I really cannot predict how this will pan out. All I know is that I am committed to the need for higher education to be more than simply a private good. Through our curricula and research, we have to serve society and work towards social justice and not only serve the globalised economy,” Boughey added.
Boughey fears that the protests could damage the public higher education system beyond repair depending on which form they take. This could result in a private sector of higher education.
These private institutions would likely focus on ‘marketable’ degrees such as BSc Accounting or Environmental Science. [So long to art, drama, philosophy, and English – you are fired.] And most ironically, it would worsen inequality. The rich could afford prestigious private higher education while the poorer are left to the crumbling public system.
“The privates are hovering and waiting,” Boughey said. Apparently this has already happened in many other parts of the world. “We have to ensure that the protests build our universities and do not destroy them. That would be to the detriment of all and would impact on social justice more than anything.”