A hot topic of debate in South African news over the last year or two has been #FeesMustFall – a movement which has seen students from across the country come together and tackle issues of free and ‘decolonised’ university education.
While this movement has sadly – and unnecessarily – resulted in a large amounts of violence, arson and damage to public property, it has also given rise to significant points of discussion which need to be addressed in a comprehensive and solution-driven manner.
Having focused solely on how fees must fall, we ought to now be considering how we can rise to the challenge and take the actions required of us to address the issues facing our youth and our tertiary institutions.
With this in mind, it is essential not to put all of the responsibility on any single party, we all have a role to play from universities and government to students themselves.
While the major priority of a university is to provide quality, relevant education to students, it can’t be overlooked that the aim is to produce academics and professionals who, in turn, work to better and benefit the country as a whole. Think about teachers, doctors, scientists, engineers and innovative business minds and how these people have the ability to mould our society and boost our economic standing.
This is a vital, and tough, mission and while finances are a part of it as it is with any institutional operation, universities should not necessarily be constrained by this single factor let alone have to take responsibility for funding all students who want to join their student bodies.
When announcing it will be increasing tuition fees by 8% in 2017 the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) said that it had no choice but to move ahead with this increase if it wanted to remain financially sustainable and keep up with salary and bill payments. As all costs rise each year, such an increase is inevitable and is required to support the ultimate goal of producing the skills and knowledge required by the South African market and economy.
Universities are playing their part and need to function at their full potential without any impediments. If we do not take care of our universities and allow criminals to deviate from a just cause, damaging and burning facilities, education will also lose its value and we will run the risk of losing more academics as was the case with Professor Jonathan Jansen who left his position at the University of the Free State for a job at Stanford University in America.
Speaking on the state of South African universities last year and summing up the role of universities in rising to the challenge, Jansen said, “I don’t mind a 0% fee increase, but you can’t run a university with 0%. There has to be an income increase. At the end of the day, your ability to have universities that are of a high quality depends on what you do with your money.”
The South African government has, by far, the biggest challenge to rise to – to bridge the poverty gap and deal with serious societal issues plaguing the nation from unemployment, to access to basic resources.
In addition, they have to take some responsibility in dealing with #FeesMustFall, funding students who cannot afford tertiary education, and combatting financial exclusion.
This is where a pragmatic subsidisation model will become essential.
Ultimately, government needs to take note of current initiatives and whether or not they are offering the best returns. Are there enough public/private sector partnerships aimed at curbing education and unemployment challenges faced by the country? Are we doing enough to grow entrepreneurs? How can we better address filling the skills gap in the country? These are the questions government should be answering in our current context.
Last, but definitely not least, is the role of students of which there are far more than there are job vacancies.
With the backdrop of high unemployment – and specifically youth and graduate unemployment – it is essential for students to rethink the way they are selecting their career paths.
It is concerning that students are more interested in the future income opportunities of a specific career, rather than the knowledge of the career itself and requirements thereof. In light of this, many students turned job-seekers lack the aptitude for the careers in question and don’t take the time to identify their interests and skills and how this can be applied to careers desperately required by the local job market.
Not everyone has the skills – and passion – required to become a doctor but this is also not the only career that pays well and is in demand, think about the need for tradesmen and artisans. Research is key in this regard as the more passionate and fulfilled you are by what you do, the happier you will be; and the more thought you put into what careers are out there, the higher chance you have of securing work after university.
In terms of financial responsibility, there is no mistaking that while government can play their part, students need to get on board and plan for their tertiary education. From getting a part time job to save up for tuition fees to choosing not to relocate to Johannesburg and rather attend a university in your community, there are ways and means to reach your academic goals.
Responsibility must rise on the side of students.
We have an unbelievable amount of talent in this country and, by working together and rising to the challenge, we can overcome the issues at hand.
Photo credit: Deon Ferreira