Kay Vittee: State, universities and students must all rethink their approach

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

6 thoughts on “Kay Vittee: State, universities and students must all rethink their approach

  1. At last a article that tells it as it is. Well Done Kay. Prospective students and current students need to take responsibility and not expect hand outs all the time. Institutions are going beyond their means to assist.

  2. I agree with your view that a “rethink” of the whole approach is required. Only ONE aspect of this whole problem, is the fact that we have too many students at university studying absolutely useless courses. The universities are producing thousands of graduates with BA degrees in political science, philosophy and sociology etc I really can’t see how this will grow the economy. In the end, some may still find employment in government, which in itself is nothing other than sheltered employment funded by the taxpayer. More passengers on the gravy train because let’s be honest here -the private sector can’t use them and doesn’t want them. Studying for the sake of studying means nothing since they will not be able to repay their loans. Universities need to place restrictions on the admissions for these types of courses.

  3. There is no doubt that a re-evaluation of the educational system is needed, however I do think that an even bigger part of this fix needs to come from students, with support from the government. A good example is the British system, whereby students are granted lower fees, or zero interest loans based on their grades. The higher your grades, the higher your diploma level, the higher benefits you receive. So many of our academics have the grades to attend university but once there lose their interest in lieu of social pursuits and by the 2nd semester, they’re failing and falling behind. I don’t believe the government and by extension, the tax payer – should in way foot the bill for any student that fails to put in the required work to get a pass grade. Following on this, I think violence and destruction of state property should result in permanent expulsion from any and all state institutions, if found guilty. Make way for learners who want to nurture their future, not burn it to the ground.

  4. Thank you Kay for such a well written informative article. I agree with you and to add on that I think the problem is perpetrated by the majority of uneducated people who do not understand the critical role that the education can play in ones life. Especially in our black communities, we don’t have formal structures that encourage education.

    Recently I have meet a foreign guy who was so suprised seeing kids playing outside at about 19:00 while in his home country that’s supposed to be a reading time. Some illiterate parents don’t mind telling you that you must do the choes of the house and not do your homework others even go far as to tell you that you must not waste their electricity when studying until late.

    I think what we should do in Africa is to address the educational challenges at a very young age i.e deal with our faulty basic education. You will be amaze if you hear that in my village, a child in grade 7 at a government school would barely ready fluently. It’s really saddening to see our beautiful country with the best minds failing to improve in almost all the basic human needs.

  5. The Fees Must Fall campaign is really just a convenient hook on which to hang something much bigger, namely the ineffectiveness of universities in SA to do their job, which, realistically, is to provide high-level intellectual material and skills for the country. Universities are not providing suitable curricula, which would enable graduates to do a proper job once leaving the university. Apart from the professions (medicine, engineering, architecture etc.), there is little alignment of curricula/academic programs with the requirements of the intended graduates once in the job-market. Our universities are dinosaurs in a fast-moving world of technology and ideas. Fear of losing academic standards is simply a poor excuse for not keeping up.

  6. Very well put Kay. I for one am AGAINST the whole “free tertiary education” argument.

    Let me explain: Yes, before a person turns 18, they are considered to not yet be an adult and should therefore have access to education at either no or a minimal cost. However, once they turn 18, they are now considered under law to be an ADULT and should be skilled enough to fend for themselves and make their own decisions – one being whether they even want to attend university or not. ( I know of many people whom I matriculated with that opted to rather become tradesmen and are doing exceptionally well for themselves today. I have yet to hear of a country with a disproportionate tax base like ours – something like 14Million Taxpayers supporting 52Million people , where EVERYONE can afford to go to university and get a degree?)

    Personally I was never afforded the chance to attend varsity, as much as I wanted to, for the simple reason that neither my parents or I could afford it. Instead I opted to take up a part time job and save enough money to study and get certified in a career that I knew could take me somewhere….this even though some consider me to be a “privileged white”. After much hard work (a phrase that today’s youth seem to be afraid of) I can now consider myself successful amongst many of my peers.

    So in conclusion, asking for the Taxpayer to cough up for EVERYTHING (a Socialist approach – which is the direction that we are headed in and if this movement is successful, it will start moving to other sectors of society) they should think beyond their noses and realize that if they were to get “free” education, they would land up paying for it one day when they join the workforce – which I’m sure they haven’t thought about.

    So how about rather than wasting YOUR and MY Tax money by burning down PUBLIC property, these students rather harden up and make alternative plans to be able to get an education and start contributing once they join the workforce. Follow the examples set by the likes of Herman Mashaba and you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.

    Never stop learning and never stop moving forwards!

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