Friday, October 23, 2015

University - the school of hard knocks

Thousands of South African university students have taken to the streets in the biggest unified student protests since the first democratic elections in 1994. The protests began at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg on October 14. Over the following week, students from universities across the country joined the action – in many instances occupying campuses.

South Africa’s universities are underfunded. This isn’t supposition or opinion: it’s a fact borne out by the country’s own Department of Higher Education and Training. Now students have had enough. They have organised themselves into protest groups at universities around the country, in some cases shutting down entire campuses and surrounding public roads.

There is a new student movement sweeping South Africa’s universities. Its enemies? Excessive fee increases and underpaid workers. Black Africans make up 79% of South Africa’s population, yet their participation rate in higher education is “less than 15%

South Africa’s budget for universities as a percentage of GDP, the committee reported, was just 0.75%. That’s lower than the Africa-wide proportion of 0.78% and the global proportion of 0.84%. It also falls short of the proportion of 1.21% spent by OECD countries. The committee also found that in the decade between 2000 and 2010, state funding per full-time equivalent student fell by 1.1% annually in real terms. But each of these students' fees increased by 2.5% annually during the same period.

If students continue to ally with underpaid university workers the challenge ahead is crystal clear: target the men who control the finances. Most universities in South Africa now hire executive deans, paying huge salaries to people who may bring an expertise in business management. One major thrust in the “university as business” models is the ranking of universities in a competitive list. We are no longer a public sector working together to achieve a public good by contributing to knowledge and preparing skilled critical citizens. Instead, we are a set of businesses trying to maximise our brand value. The university is just one small social structure. That doesn’t mean it has to replicate the injustices of broader society.

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