• By Andani Thakhati
Young students exchanging intimacy with already married partners (mostly twice their age) for money and accommodation or living in dilapidated shelters packed with students who cannot afford decent residence for the duration of their studies. These are just two of the many common survival strategies employed by youth in order to get through university in South Africa. Those who cannot attract a rich suitor or who do not have the grit to suffer through lectures hungry, are forced to either join the ranks of the unemployed or to pursue a more lucrative but short-lived career in the black markets. University education does not come cheap. University fees are simply unaffordable for the majority of South African students.
Then, on top of that, there are other costs to consider such as food, accommodation, toiletries and other necessities. It is this plight, this struggle, that sparked and continues to fuel what has come to be known as the #FeesMustFall (FMF) movement.
FMF is a student-led protest movement that was sparked in early October 2015 when the students of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg South Africa, refused to accept a 10.5% fee increase for the 2016 academic period. The Wits FMF student movement quickly won support from students of the University of Cape Town (UCT), and Rhodes University (Rhodes) who promptly began protesting as well.
Soon thereafter, FMF had spread to every public university in the country and once the critical mass was reached, thousands of youth marched in solidarity to the Union Buildings to express their views to the presidency and national government. Their intentions were to get the president to listen, and to radically transform higher education in South Africa. The result? On the 23rd October 2015, President Jacob Zuma announced that there would be a 0% increase in University fees for 2016. However, FMF has made it clear that it will take more than a 0% increase for one academic year to satisfy their demands. As a result, the movement is still in full force today.
These sentiments were echoed at a recent panel discussion held at the University of South Africa’s College of Human Sciences focusing on the theme of Decolonising the university and student movements in South Africa. Vuayni Pambo, Chairperson of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) student movement at WITS and member of WITS FMF movement, emphasised that FMF is a strategic movement by youth to ensure that the higher education landscape in South Africa will be torn down in order for it to be rebuilt in a manner that makes it accessible to the African child. In their public statement, the #FeesMustFall student movement boldly asserts that:
“This movement seeks to fight against anti-black practices of the [university] institution in all its forms. We seek to rectify the structural and epistemic violence which has led to the academic and financial exclusion of black students, the exploitation of black workers and the generalized intellectual dishonor of black academics and also bridge the gap between whites and blacks which have been acquired by over 500 years of land dispossession and oppression throughout the world. We also do acknowledge that our struggles, even though geographically separated with our brothers and sisters beyond the shore of our beloved Africa, our struggles against anti-blackness doesn’t exist in isolation and we therefore seek for global solidarity from similar movements around the world like Black Lives Matter and Rhodes must fall Oxford. This leads us to the desire and agency to end life of the University of the Witwatersrand as we know it!”.
This shows how FMF is more than just an anti-fee hike student movement. It is rooted in a resistance to any form of existing barriers to development for historically disadvantaged students, workers and academics on the African continent and throughout the world. The intention is noble, but what about the consequences? What would happen to the quality of education, university stakeholders and international students if fees were to fall?
What are the implications of FMF on the Quality of Education?
South Africa has great higher education standards. According to Topuniversities.com, South African Universities rank in the top third (top 33%) of higher education institutions in the world. This was also expressed by Hanna (Barry) Ziady, Financial Services analyst for Moneyweb, who holds that students in South African universities are currently getting the same quality education as those in other countries with the benefit of lower prices compared to the cost of education in developed regions. “Fees at South African universities are broadly lower than a number of other countries – and, arguably, the quality of instruction is on a par depending on which courses are studied where ”, Ziady stated.
While different viewpoints regarding the impact of a no-fee system on the quality of education exist, the commonly known law of quality vs. quantity has been the main line of reasoning in this debate. In the United States the democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, proposed his College for All Act which aims to make four-year public higher education institutions tuition-free. Kevin James, a research fellow with the Centre on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute thinks that while Sanders’s aims are noble, the idea will only work to limit qualification choices and worsen education standards in the U.S.
This view seems to hold up in Africa as well. In 2014, the Inter-University Council for East Africa’s conducted a study which revealed the quality of graduates from East Africa are poor. Reflecting on this study, Dr. Goolam Mohamedbhai who is the former secretary-general of the Association of African Universities and current member of the governing council of the United Nations University, concluded that “there are many reasons for the declining quality of graduates but the root cause is the rapid expansion in tertiary student enrolment”.
One of the key reasons why South African Universities rank in the top 33% of global universities (according to Topuniversities.com) is because they have a favourable student-to-academic staff ratio which enables them to be “equipped to provide small class sizes and a good level of individual supervision”. If fees had to indeed fall, it is likely that these levels of education service delivery would be compromised. On the 5th of January 2016, Basic Education Minster Angie Motshekga delivered the annual national senior certificate (matric) results speech. She noted a growing trend of school pupils when she stated that “the Class of 2015 has recorded the highest enrolment of Grade 12 learners in the history of the basic education system in South Africa”. This 2015 cohort saw 455,825 pupils pass in totality. 36% (166,263) of these pupils passed with an admission to a bachelors degree and I estimate than an additional 150,000 passed with a national diploma. At this rate that would mean that South African universities would have to cater for an additional, being conservative, 300,000 students who would then enter the public higher education system.
This would lead to an overburdened system and an incapacity to meet the nations higher education demands without compromising on efficiency and quality when considering students from South African high schools alone. However, there are still many other students from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and in other parts of Africa whom South African Universities service.
What about SADC and international students?
During their march to the Union Buildings, the FMF movement handed the South African Government a memorandum demanding free Afrocentric quality education.
It seems, however, that the South African government is not considering free education for all Afrocentric students. In his official response to the memorandum, Deputy Minister of Higher Education and Training, Mr. Mduduzi Manana, stated that “Government has committed to free higher education for the poor undergraduate level and its phasing in requires urgent consideration of funding mechanisms”. He ended his response ambiguously, with no clear deadlines or action steps by saying “we will further consider radical proposals including Corporate Education Tax, increasing the skills levy and general reprioritisation in government in order to fund this number one priority in the country”. This is reflective of the approach taken by Chile, the South American country who recently passed legislation granting free education to students from low-income homes on the 23rd December, 2015. What this means is, foreign students from SADC and other countries will not be considered for fee-free education.
Unfortunately, neither will South African students who do not qualify as coming from poor previously disadvantaged families.
#FeesMustFall, a victory for the poor
Taking this into account it seems that the FMF movement, seen from a developmental perspective, is a victory for the poor and therefore is a step forward towards poverty eradication and inequality. Middle to upper class South Africans, previously advantaged South Africans and foreign students do not stand to benefit from tuition-free higher education. The Ministry of Higher Education released an official statement which made this clear on the 20th of January 2015.
“Our current funding model is dependent on fees, and therefore all students have to pay fees, whether funded by loans, bursaries, or families” the ministry declared after the meeting between the Ministry of Higher Education and Training and the Vice-chancellors of South Africa’s public universities.
This joint communication coming from government and university leadership is a clear indication that the vision of #FeesMustFall – free Afrocentric quality education – is yet to be realised.
Despite this, FMF will continue to stand as a testimony to leaders of all developing nations, that the youth possess a power to make economies and their key sectors ungovernable. FMF, transcended racial barriers as students – black and white stood together for their disadvantaged fellows. It transcended national barriers as students in other parts of the world such as the UK protested in solidarity.
It even transcended age and stakeholder distinctions as workers, particularly those affected by labour brokering and outsourcing of university services were supported by students resulting in some unprecedented agreements.
This includes the agreements made by Wits and Unisa to employ such workers full time and give them access to the benefits that permanent university employees enjoy such as free education for themselves, their spouses and their children. Indeed, if anything, #FeesMustFall represents a victory for the poor and a step, albeit small, towards social equity and cohesion. * Andani Thakhati is a young South African researcher, writer and philosopher. τ