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Friday, January 22, 2021
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The resilience of South Africa’s universities is being tested to the limit

Professor Ahmed Bawa

Universities are resilient institutions. Even so, in the face of ongoing instability and deepening underfunding, South Africa’s institutions of higher learning are taking enormous strain, testing that resilience to the limits.

The universities have arrived at the end of another academic year and while 2017 may appear to have been a much more stable one than 2016, most institutions experienced some level of localised instability during the year. While the #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall campaigns have generated much public and media interest, we must remind ourselves that instability in the sector is decades old, prevalent mainly at those institutions which cater primarily for students from poor backgrounds. The issues have always been the same: the unaffordability of higher education for most South African families and the connection or relevance of the higher education system with the local context.

Universities are social institutions, created and funded by societies across the world. They play particular, highly specialised roles as knowledge-intensive institutions. For instance, they contribute to the national projects of nation-building, the sustainable growing of the economy and perhaps most importantly to the construction of a more equal society. At a more general level, we look to these institutions for the production of new cohorts of intellectuals shaped in the context that they seek the constant re-imagination and renewal of our humanity and the way in which it relates to the universe in which it exists.

Not surprisingly, therefore, universities are highly contested political, physical and conceptual spaces. They are either powerful institutions for the maintenance of the privilege of elites or they can be deeply subversive, deeply influential in reshaping humanity, in building societies and economies that place human beings at the centre. The knowledge project of each university and of the sector as a whole is at the heart of this highly contested space. We should not be surprised that universities generate such high levels ideological emotion and activism.

The key issue that underpins the instability that currently engulfs our universities is unresolved and it has to be one way or the other. The status quo cannot persist.

A national consensus does exist that in a democracy such as ours, with such deep and persistent inequalities, higher education cannot and must not be out of reach of most people. No South African admitted into one of our universities should be prevented from taking up the opportunity of studying for financial reasons. That negates a very basic and fundamental role of our universities.

So, what then is the problem? And why are we not making progress?

This is not a challenge that can be solved by the universities. This is a national issue. It is a challenge that has to be resolved through a national discourse that would advise the state of how to proceed and I daresay, this has happened already if the national government cares to listen.

We could adopt a model which says that all tuition fees should be scrapped. At the current levels of funding, this would mean an injection into the state subsidy towards the higher education institutions of about R25 billion a year to maintain the funding at current levels. This would not cover the full cost of studies, just the tuition fees.

The notion that higher education produces both public goods such as those mentioned above and private ones such as higher salaries on average, privileged access to the labour market, greater job satisfaction, flexibility, etc. is used to argue for a cost-sharing basis. This resides at the heart of the income contingency loan model put forward by the so-called Fees Commission. Student activists have eloquently made the point that this ignores the burdens of historic debt borne by the majority of South Africans and the historic privilege of minorities. The second argument is that there simply is not enough fiscal space in the national budget to address this challenge. This too is debatable and it is debated.

Actually, there are a number of solutions on the table. The numbers have all been crunched and a certain level of risk analysis done for each.

All we need now is a clearly defined route-map which lays out where we are, where we wish to be and the trajectory between these two points. This has not been done, even in the context of ongoing demands. Why?

The general paralysis of the state is disastrous for universities and their students, staff and leadership. And when the state does speak, it does so with many tongues adding to the confusion, the uncertainty, the instability. While the universities are committed to working vigorously and diligently with the state on this project, the state is for all reasonable purposes an absent player at this stage.

Are South Africa’s universities perfect? Of course not. Can we improve their efficiency? Clearly yes. Are they in optimal relationships with communities, local government, the NGO-sector, business and industry? These can and must be improved. But let’s be clear. Our universities are a massive national asset. The system is the best performing one on our continent and it punches way above its weight globally. Since 1994, it has more than doubled in size, its research output has grown threefold and it graduates more doctorates than ever before.

While contestation, debates and activism about its nature and role in society will always be a part of its fabric, it needs stability and more funding to foster its continuing positive impact on our society.

Professor Ahmed Bawa is the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa.

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