A struggle for justice in education – or for the fall of the State?

Why is ‘free education for all’ such a terrible idea?

The universities should have screamed and shouted louder and earlier. Since 2002, student enrolments have gone up by almost 70% on our campuses. Yet, at the same time, an increasingly corrupt and bloated national government has cut university funding every single year.

The government used to cover about half of the costs of every student at university. But by 2015, this government ‘subsidy’ has fallen to covers only 40% of each student’s true cost.

Where does the rest come from?

Mostly from student fees, which have increased every year, for the past decade, by about 3% or 4% more than inflation. This has more than doubled the cost students have to bear themselves, in just 10 years. 

 Universities have not been silent but their lobbying of government has been singularly ineffective. Probably the biggest win from the student struggles of 2015 is that there is now a deep and wide consensus that no student who is capable of attending and succeeding at university should be prevented by lack of income.

 This year, 2016, could have seen the consolidations of all the gains of 2015, and the winning of substantial new gains. Instead, we got an inchoate and violent group of protesters, with an unwinnable and illogical demand: “Free education for all” (and some additional riders that it should be decolonised and of high quality).

Marching under this banner has failed to rally students at Rhodes, or on any other campus: there is no example of student support approaching 10% of a given campus population anywhere in the country. At Rhodes, fewer than 200 students have been activity involved in the 2016 round of protest; some suggest core involvement is even lower than this. 

 An unpopular and unworkable demand, and a tactic that insisted that all universities had to close, immediately and permanently (until the demand was won), and an early resort to violence by the students further eroded support for the protesters. 

Protesters’ social media across South Africa, and particularly at Rhodes, openly lamented the lack of support from the broader mass of students, and bemoaned student ‘apathy’.

There is a failure on the protesting student’s part to build a mass movement, and to advance their struggle via making demands, then banking and winning concessions before moving on. All or nothing almost always means you wind up with nothing.

It doesn’t matter that ‘free fees for all’ 
is an illogical and retrogressive demand 
that would punish the poor.  
The demand is not meant to be won

This all stems from the core demand, and the core choice of tactics.

Why is ‘free education for all’ such a terrible idea?

First, it misidentifies the real problems in South African education.

The core problem in South African education is the deep crisis in our schools. The allied core issue is the dramatic decline in funding and current under-resourcing of the universities.

These twin crises mean that about half of all students to come to university are so desperately unprepared they have no realistic chance of passing.

Once at university, they find the university’s declining budgets means there are no effective ways to help students recover from inadequate schooling and adapt to their new environment.

For example, all the carefully researched and innovative planning for running all degrees over an optional extra year (doing a three-year degree over four years, with intensive support in year one and other longer term assistance) was dismissed by Blade Nzimande and the ANC government in 2014/15 because it was ‘too expensive’.

And then the student revolt began.

That particular solution, if properly funded, would still work and is one of the things that should be demanded now, across the board. 

The scale of this crisis is staggering. Out of every 100 children that start school in South Africa any given year, only 14 eventually qualify for university. That’s how bad South African schools are. By some measures, they produce the least university-ready students in sub-Saharan Africa! These numbers are deeply raced: half of white matric pupils get a chance to go to university. Only 17% of black matriculates get the marks they need to even knock on University’s expensive doors.

That 86 out of every 100 students are not educated to even have a chance of getting into university or find meaningful employment is the single most critical issue in our society. It is a crime against South African humanity and against the country’s youth.

For the tiny minority of students who do get into university, only half will get a degree within six years. Many never do, even after, in some cases, four or five years of trying.

If you could make the call, and you had R50 billion of funding a year (the minimum South Africa would need to find to fund free education, for all, every year forever) what would your priority be? 

There’s only one rational and moral option:  It has to be to improve our schools, especially our primary schoolsso that the four out of five black children who currently never get near a university get a chance to study further after school or to lead productive lives and find decent jobs.  

Organising barricades, fetching 
petrol and tyres, having the discipline 
and knowledge to make petrol bombs 
and start fires, is not something
hat just ‘happens’

And in addition to ‘fixing’ our broken schools, there has to be a vast increase in funding for all universities, particularly the previously disadvantaged universities, so that they can better help students complete their studies.

Yes, it will take a lot more than money to ‘fix’ schools, and it will take a while to build sustainable university-based remedial programmes, which could offer close student support, smaller classes, much more one-on-one attention, more care for students etc. But if that investment were made, South Africa could generate at least 100 000 extra graduates every year just from students currently in the university system.  

That would be an astonishing win: a win that would raise the country up like nothing else.  It is very doable, if there were more money to implement the plans for schools and universities that have already been worked out.

Fees are an important issue, but the bigger and more pressing issues is that half of current students will never graduate at all, including many whose families are wealthy. Universities are alienating spaces for too many, and schools woefully under-prepare students for success post school.

Decolonisation, properly understood and transformation, probably done, have to focus on this core challenge: what will it take to get more students to graduate with a qualification that enhances their confidence, abilities and capacities?

Our current system is doing a terrible job of that. Too many students are alienated by university systems that are way too stuck in entrenched and indeed ‘colonial’ ways of teaching and learning. Systematic change to modes of teaching, to content and to racial transformation of teaching staff are all happening too slowly, if they’re happening at all.

It is for these reasons – of misidentifying the key issues and challenges –that free fees for all is such a terrible choice of demand.

It is unwinnable and unworkable and a demand which, if ever met, will make just about everything in South African education worse.

As Nic Spaull and many other researchers have argued (and as every university administration in South Africa has argued), zero fees for all directly benefits, massively and disproportionately, the rich. About 60% of students who get into university come from fee-paying schools, the so-called ‘top 30%’ of schools. Spaull argues:

“This explains why blanket fee-free education is considered to be highly
regressive or anti-poor. In contrast to a free-for-the-poor
system which is pro-poor. The fact that the children from the wealthiest
households are many times more likely to get in to university means
that they would benefit disproportionately from a blanket fee-free system.
It should thus come as no surprise that the 
World Bank (2014) 
and Van der Berg (2016) both estimate that as much as half (48%) of the
university funding in South Africa accrues to the richest 10%
of households. And two thirds (68%) accrues to the wealthiest 20%
of households. As Van der Berg notes, this constitutes an
“extreme bias towards spending on the rich if all students are
equally subsidized.” 

NIC SPAULL, Higher education: free for the poor, not free for all Sunday Times 16 October 2016

Why would the 2016 protesting students want to make this anti-poor, pro-rich demand? Why not demand massive increases in state spending for universities, and a far better mix of loans, scholarship and bursaries for every deserving student? And why not demand better schools?   

There are many reasons, but the one that has become most obvious on every campus, is that the “free Fees for all” core demand is actually a deceptive demand made as part of a broader struggle dislodge the current ruling party from state power.

After many rounds of negotiation here at Rhodes, where Rhodes University, had agreed to every demand tabled (and where the entire negotiation was streamed live to ensure transparency), protesters were still not prepared to allow the universities to reopen and stay open. A ‘movement’ of a few dozen student activists at Rhodes insists that more than 7 000 students should stop learning and the entire university close down.

The same logic has played out on many other campuses: days of negotiation, and no movement on absolute demand made from day one. The call has consistently been for total shutdown, of all universities, until there is free education for all.

But that still doesn’t answer the why question. Why was this not part of the 2015 demands, and why demand something that so disproportionately benefits the wealthy, and does nothing to fix core problems in our schools?

Here’s part of the answer: Prominent student leader (ex head of the UCT SRC 2015) Ramabina Mahapa wrote last year:

Some cadres have asked me why concessions lead to more demands… The aim is to get the university to reach a stage where they will be unable to concede to any more significant demands and therefore resort to use the state policing apparatus and private security to repress student protests. The expectation is that this will detach the black masses from the hegemonic bloc of the ruling party and thereby awaken the ‘sleeping’ masses that will then redirect their frustrations and rage towards not only the universities but the state. This in turn will initiate a more substantive ideological and policy shift in the ruling party. Should the ruling party fail to change then an overthrow of the current government will be imminent.”

This is precisely the sentiment that leaks out all the time on all the campuses and from every attempt at negotiation with protesting students, and is fully evident on protesting students’ social media.  In short, it doesn’t matter that ‘free fees for all’ is an illogical and retrogressive demand that would punish the poor.  The demand is not meant to be won.  It can only be understood as a part broader insurrectionary strategy, or amorphous set of ideas to destabilise and eventually remove a corrupt government from power.  

And the demand is not something organic, which bubbled up through discussions that students at Rhodes (or any other campus) have held:  it is infused with ideas, tactics and on-the-ground organisational work from the EFF Student Command and other insurrectionary semi-organised formations.

Organising barricades, fetching petrol and tyres, having the discipline and knowledge to make petrol bombs and start fires, is not something that just ‘happens’. It requires planning and careful coordination.

Overblown? A discredited conspiracy ‘theory’ just because that is the line the securocrats in Zuma’s cabinet are taking? And because the utterly useless Blade Nzimande takes this position too?

Of course, many students are furious about how South Africa has been captured by a small predatory and self-serving elite. And yes, of course there is fury about most white and sometimes foreign control of 90% of the country’s assets and 80% of income 22 years after democracy.  The best universities in South Africa are still fundamentally white and middle class, and those that are not offer a mostly poor quality education.

But protesters could easily develop militant, deep, far-reaching demands that were all progressively achievable. It would be relatively easy to build a broad-based mass movement in support of just about any set of winnable demands around higher education. Such an approach would see hundreds of thousands of students participate, as would thousands of academics, as would progressive (non-ANC-aligned) unions and popular movements on the ground.

But that is not the aim of the 2016 protesters, and that is not what is happening on our campuses. Instead, we see instead violence as a primary tactic and often an opening resort. The fiction that these protests are not violent, or that the protesters are peace-loving has not been challenged enough, despite the overwhelming evidence every day, on all campuses, of threats and intimidation to any and all students who want to go to lectures, tutorials, write exams, even just use the library.

The venom and the viciousness of the rhetoric towards their fellow students is exceeded only by the threats made to university staff of all backgrounds and levels.  

There is no doubt some students genuinely believe this struggle is only about eliminating fees and making university education fee. But there clearly others who have broader agendas: those with broader agendas seem to be getting the upper hand on most campuses. 

There have now been well over one hundred arson attempts across campuses, including some very serious attempts at Rhodes. Buildings at Rhodes with Rhodes students in them have been lit, just as a bus with Wits students as passengers, was torched this week. Fire fighters are then stoned when they arrive.

The viability of this local economy
is so tied to Rhodes University, 
the city would go into a steep 
and irreversible decline without it.

There are now hundreds of terrible examples.  This struggle has quickly degenerated on some campuses into a form of urban terrorism, with masked students carrying catties, petrol bombs and shields, or operating late in night hit groups that are trying to destroy exam venues and computers labs at Rhodes.

As is the aim, the police have to intervene, and they can be relied to mess up more often than not: poorly paid, poorly trained, often scared, these working class South Africans are between a rock and a hard place. And the rocks are heading to their heads, and to those of any security. 

There can never be an excuse for police brutality and attacks on non-involved students and staff. But police have to act if lives and property are threatened, and they have to act when the rights of vast majority of students who want to study are forcefully denied. The police would not have to act if there was no threat: the threat is unfortunately real and stark. 

No matter how false and inane the arguments is that somehow the response to the threats of violence and actual violence on all our campuses are the cause of the violence, the universities actually have no choice.  

The private security forces, the millions spent on video cameras, the police out in force, the court interdicts are a desperate attempt to protect people and property from an insurrectionary force that are small, but deadly and determined in their aims.

It is a desperate attempt to allow the universities to continue to play their role in creating the skills and capacities we need to grow South Africa.

At Rhodes and for Grahamstown, this and more is at stake. The viability of this local economy is so tied to Rhodes University, the city would go into a steep and irreversible decline without it. Rhodes does not want to and cannot be part of a struggle whose aim is not justice in education, but “awakening the ‘sleeping’ masses that will then redirect their frustrations and rage towards not only the universities but the state” in pursuit of bringing down the government. Universities can have no truck with that. 

For all these reasons, Rhodes University’s determination to stay open, to educate South Africans, to expand its access to the poor and working class black youth, has to be defended with every resource we can muster. 

  • The writer is an academic at Rhodes University of long-standing, who fully supported the students’ demands for no-fee increases in 2015. In our 28 October edition Grocott’s Mail took the unusual step of publishing this extensive op-ed without naming the author, in an atmosphere where petrol bombs were being thrown, rubber bullets were flying and criticism of the fees protests was considered uncool or even traitorous. We believe our concern then to protect the writer remains valid now.
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Section of the Rhodes University campus seen through one of a number of windows broken during fees protests in October 2016
Section of the Rhodes University campus seen through one of a number of windows broken during fees protests in October 2016