for tomorrow

NMMU News

Let transformation begin - Derrick Swartz

NOT so long ago, many of us – the post-1976 generation – can remember a time when we bemoaned what we perceived to be the disinterest of so-called “born frees” in politics, history and current affairs, their need for instant self-gratification, and low levels of student politics on campuses.

Last Friday, as I sat in an urgent, if tense meeting called by President Jacob Zuma with university vice-chancellors, chairs of council, student leaders and ministers, I was struck by two things: how this image of a disengaged youth was shattered by the #FeesMustFall movement, and the huge inter-generational gap that has opened up.

As I listened to, and admired, the articulate and clear terms with which many student leaders put the case for what I interpreted to be a fairer, socially just higher education (HE) system, I worried about how we will find each other across this inter-generational gap after the storm is over, and how this awesome energy could be used to construct a new intellectual and social order, not like previously idealistic generations which ran aground against the rocky shores of hard economic reality.

Although I disagreed with some of their positions, including the idea of “free HE for all” (as opposed to “free HE for the poor”), and their failure to be self-critical about violence on campuses, I totally agreed with their central thesis: the current system is fatally flawed and needs major overhaul.

I certainly agree with their position that a “free fee” system for the poor (full bursaries, a proportion of which must be paid to society upon getting a job and income above a certain threshold) is entirely feasible, especially if we intend spending over R1-trillion on nuclear power stations.

The agreement struck in the Union Buildings on Friday – a moratorium on direct fee increases for 2016 plus measures to provide debt relief to 2015 under-funded NSFAS recipients and unfunded NSFAS-eligible students – is only a holding mechanism.

We have simply kicked the proverbial can down the road.

To deal with this obvious problem, it was agreed that a presidential working group urgently look into the underlying problems of structural underfunding: government spending on HE as a percentage of GDP declining from 0.76% in 2000 to 0.69% in 2009, lowering per capita spend, and unacceptable fee increases – the spark to the current crisis.

However, none of this is new. Several generations of university leaders have brought this to the attention of the government since the 1990s.

I find it astounding that some commentators assert that university leaders have been sleeping on this issue all this time, as I know the funding deficit was raised with every single minister, from Professor Sibusiso Bengu and Kader Asmal, to Naledi Pandor and Blade Nzimande.

Last year, a task team led by Cyril Ramaphosa clearly raised serious concerns about gross underfunding of the entire system.

In the same year, another ministerial task team led by myself had proposed a model for costing and funding “free” fee HE for the poor and so-called “missing middle” income categories.

It never got further than a cabinet presentation.

What is new is the simple fact that it took the political power of thousands of students to bring the sector to a crisis point – something which none of the university leaders could achieve in 21 years.

Their remarkable struggle, spectacularly well crafted, positioned and driven, has put a major issue on the table not just for the state, but for our nation: what value do we place on public higher education and how much are we willing to pay for its costs?

One thing is for sure: the sociological implications of the new voices “from below” will be profound, unsettling and impactful for years to come.

Enrolment growth has completely altered the balance of forces within – from 480 000 in 1995 to over 980 000 students in 2014, with over 80% black and 54% female.

But gross academic staff profiles still largely reflect patterns of apartheid university days. Its transformation will not happen without clear investment in recruitment, training, retention, institutional culture changes, and proper state funding.

Similarly, our students are legitimately asking: what of us is in that what you teach? We are going to be under great pressure to transform university curricula, to align better to the burning development needs of our country and continent, and to inhabit and express its rich history, cultures and archaeologies of knowledge.

To navigate universities through this challenging period will require us to foster a climate which empowers all sides to confront difficult issues in a transcendent manner, where students and lecturers from all cultures, classes and genders can learn from each other and build deeper appreciation of our differences and our common humanity.

It will require a politics of humanisation, not humiliation.It will require us to make time to have real transformative conversations, not shouting or talking at each other, and using this new energy of our students to find new pathways into a democratic, socially-just future for all.