World insight: South Africa’s student uprising

Freeze on tuition fee increases does nothing to counter inequality, writes Martin Hall

December 9, 2015
South Africa flag

In South Africa, a schoolteacher earns too little to pay the fees for a son or daughter at a public university, but too much to qualify for a government-provided loan.

For those families who are entitled to a loan, the state’s funding agency has insufficient to go around and can only meet about half of its obligations. But for better-off families, many of which will earn more than ten times the average household income and who can gain admission to South Africa’s highest ranked universities, an internationally-recognised degree costs a quarter of the equivalent qualification at a similarly ranked British universities.

These consequences of severe economic inequality, combined with the slow pace of change away from the apartheid years, have resulted in a sustained and continuing crisis across almost all university campuses in South Africa. Protests started in February – the beginning of the academic year – when up to 20,000 students at Tswane University of Technology faced a bar on re-registration because the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) could not provide the bursary funds owed to them.

Through March and April, student protests about the slow pace of change at the University of Cape Town crystalised as the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, and the removal of Rhodes’ statute from its dominant position at the heart of the campus.  In August, a video drawing attention to racism and discrimination at the University of Stellenbosch went viral. 

Then, as the spark to a forest dry with anger and discontent, universities began to announce fee increases for 2016 of over 10 per cent; more than double the general rate of inflation. Widespread protests through October saw universities resorting to court interdicts, police action, violent protests at parliament in Cape Town and government buildings in Pretoria, and campus closures. 

Read more: The discontent of South Africa’s students goes beyond fees

By November, some universities had managed to get through end-of-year examinations. Others had been forced to postpone examinations to early 2016 while others had abandoned them indefinitely. The high summer months of December and January will provide a brief interlude; with key issues unresolved, the beginning of the 2016 academic year could prove to be just as difficult.

Demands being made are, in many cases, specific to particular institutions. They include the quality of student residences, the language of instruction, the wages paid to university support and service staff, charges for registration, the failure to recruit black academic staff and the nature of the curriculum. But the common denominator is inequality. 

On all generally accepted measures, South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. And, while the years since the transition to democracy in 1994 have seen the growth of a black middle class, economic inequality continues to be skewed by race; the most recent surveys show that the average income of a black household is about one sixth of a that for a white household. Unemployment is also rising, economic growth is sluggish and about half the population is under the age of 25. Given this, the consequences of inequality will continue to dominate the headlines for South Africa.  And, as is the case everywhere, university campuses will often be the front line for these broader issues.

Read more: BRICS & Emerging Economies Rankings 2016 results announced

Initial responses by vice-chancellors, coordinated by the government, have not been auspicious. The minister for higher education training initially denied that there was a crisis. Within a few days, he announced that fee increases would not be more than 6 per cent, the current rate of inflation. Faced with student fury at this proposal, government and universities conceded to the demand that there be no fee increases for 2016. 

This is a political triumph for South Africa’s student movements, but it does little more than defer the crisis for a few months. While the government will be able to recompense the universities for a good proportion of their shortfall for 2016, they will probably do so in part by cancelling projects that would have benefited those universities most in need of support. With inflation-linked costs increasing and some universities forced by student activists to raise the wages of service staff, the funding crisis for 2017 and beyond will be all the more acute.

And a freeze on fee increases does nothing to counter inequality. For students from poor and middle income families, university fees will remain far too high to be affordable. For wealthy families, university fees remain well below the cost private schooling.

Given this, the key issue remains the lack of a comprehensive and viable source of public funding for students.  Given continuing and extreme income inequality, a national financial aid programme has to be a hybrid, with outright grants for the poor, an income continent loan system for the broad band of low to middle earning families, and a progressive tax mechanism for the wealthy. 

Government has appointed a task team to review the present funding agency, building on a series of reports and recommendations that have been on the Minister’s desk for up to five years. The magnitude of campus protests over this past year may prompt urgent and comprehensive reforms. If not, universities across South Africa will continue to experience turmoil through the year ahead.

Martin Hall is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Salford and emeritus professor at the University of Cape Town. He is now based in South Africa.

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