After a month of rolling protests and running battles across the country’s university campuses, no doubt most people who have an interest (and some who don’t) in the fate of our university system are experiencing something of an analysis overload. Nonetheless, careful thought and consideration remain our most likely avenues of success. So here goes.
It is important to separate out the two facets of the (broad and multifarious) student movements’ call for “free, decolonised education” (the “quality” qualifier has subsequently been added explicitly, but who wants education of poor quality? If it’s worth fighting for, it should be worth something.). There is free education. And there is decolonised education. The two issues are quite independent of each other.
I will state that I appreciate and support the call for a decolonial revision of curriculum. Not in the #sciencemustfall type of revisionist narrow nationalism, but in the pluri-versalist sense (as opposed to the uni-versalist sense that positions one group–any group!–at the centre and the others at the periphery). But this is not the purpose of this particular text.
Rather, I would like to simply foreground a few contradictions/dilemmas in the argument regarding free education.
After a week of protest action, two clear arguments emerged regarding how universities should be funded: one which rejected the call for free education for everyone, stating that it should only be for the poor, and the other stating that it should be free for all.
The former camp includes Minister of Higher Education, Dr. Blade Nzimande, many of the VCs (incl. Dr. Max Price) and has been supported by research by the likes of Prof. Nico Cloete from University of the Western Cape. In summary, this group argues that those who can afford user charges (also known as fees) should pay, and that providing free education for all actually benefits the wealthy.
The latter camp includes the #FeesMustFall protestors and other academics such as Prof. Salim Vally from the University of Johannesburg and Leigh Naidoo from Wits. This group argues for a fundamental restructuring of the entire economic field, with a super-tax on the rich to boost state coffers to provide funding for tertiary education. It is only in the last few days that student leaders have tacked onto this line of rhetoric explicitly.
Thus far, I have not read any analysis that calls the #FeesMustFall protest for what it is: a call for the use of universities as the apparatus through which to redistribute wealth. (It is interesting to ponder whether this is the new form of the call for land redistribution… perhaps this is where we’ve come to now that we are pushing for knowledge economies instead of agrarian or industrialist economies.)
In the existing economic dispensation i.e. a mixed economy of capitalist business structures with regulatory state involvement, this call is a paradox. The paradox unrolls as follows: universities are the means by which this developing nation state will grow its middle class (i.e. the primary mechanism of upward social mobility). However, as Nico Cloete rightly pointed out, there isn’t a single country that has provided free tertiary education in the absence of a large middle class upon whose tax-backs free tertiary education is carried. That is: we need a large middle class to fund universities, but we need funded universities to grow a middle class.
As an aside: It is interesting that universities have allowed themselves to be placed at this bottleneck. By positioning themselves as the gatekeepers towards economic freedom and prosperity, they have kept themselves ‘relevant’ in an era of education as commodity. While the spoken narrative has been one of academic freedom, the value of research and learning for the human project and the essential role of the pursuit of knowledge in the quest for greater humanity, the unspoken narrative has supported the human capital model of education commodification: after all, this drives funds TO universities, keeps demand far above supply and allows HEIs to claim a critical and irreplaceable role in society. Universities as places of ‘just’ thinking in a country where the majority are so desperate for economic emancipation would quickly be relegated to the irrelevant.
But bottlenecks bring pressure. And it should be noted that the call for ‘decommodified education’ is also contradictory. FMF protestors want increased access to university education precisely because it is a commodity. Decommodified education does not bring upward social mobility. Either your degree has an economic value, or it does not.
If the notion of free education is paradoxical in the existing economic dispensation, then, the argument goes, the broader economic structures need to change.
Overall, I think this sentiment is in principle correct: we have seen in the 2008 crash and subsequent uncertainty that our current global economic practices are increasing inequality and perpetuating multiple social ills.
Having said which, I am relatively sure that universities are not the institutions through which to leverage for broad-scale economic change in South Africa.
Firstly, most South Africans do not particularly care for universities, despite what the media might lead us to think. The vast poor majority are not excluded from tertiary study by funding constraints, but by academic constraints due to the poor primary and secondary education to which they have access. In short: if you are in a university in South Africa, you are already an elite, whether you are struggling to pay your fees or not.
Who can blame the average South African for not worrying too much about universities? Even if we construct an argument about future benefits, there are far more pressing and immediate needs. If the touted R50 billion per annum required to provide free education for all can actually be found in our national fiscus, then universities are not where it should be spent. Not while primary schools have pit toilets, rural villages have terrible roads and hospitals put patients on gurneys for lack of beds. While universities can alleviate some basic service delivery issues (e.g. by producing more doctors so that they need not work 30 hour shifts for lack of staff), the vast majority of university graduates are not front line public servants working in schools and hospitals to the benefit of the majority of the population. If there is R50 billion to be found, these priorities need addressing first.
Secondly, using universities as the levers to press for broader structural economic change assumes that we have a government in power who will prioritise expenditure in this way. But–voter base considerations not withstanding–we are in the era of the president who is not too keen on ‘clever blacks’: surely an indication that the institutions that produce said clever blacks are probably not on the top of his shopping list.
A phrase mostly often attributed to Archimedes (yes, a dead white Greek) reads “give me a lever and a place to stand and I will move the earth!”. When I had to leave the school at which I worked to avoid burn out, I found solace in a subtle qualification of this notion: that to move the earth (or at least, change the world), one needs not only a lever and a place to stand, but the right place to stand is critical to the success of the endeavour. Effective leverage is dependent on strategic positioning, both in the figurative and literal sense. But applying pressure on the wrong fulcrum, or from the wrong position (or in the wrong way!!!), doesn’t shift anything. The most likely outcome is simply a broken lever.
That we need to close the inequality gap in South Africa through some means of wealth distribution is undeniable. Some form of challenge to the status quo of economic structure is part of this project. But if universities are the wrong place to leverage for this change, the result will simply be broken apparatus, with no fundamental shift at all.