Scrapping fees alone won’t decolonise our higher education institutions

Even if the long-awaited report of the Commission of Inquiry into university fees is released tomorrow, it will not change the opaque structure of our institutions or help transform them, writes AVELA MJAJUBANA

President Jacob Zuma is facing the devil and the deep blue sea. Should he release the much awaited Heher Commission Report on Higher Education Fees and expect an outbreak of protests again or should he hold on to it and allow the mumblings of the sector to continue.

The establishment of a Commission of Inquiry was not the best solution at the time, but it was the best that President Zuma had at his disposal. What else could he do than investigate the question of fees?

The ANC had already decided in Mangaung that education, up until undergraduate level, should be free. Therefore, his party had spoken on the matter and he was giving the sector the opportunity to present its proposals on fees and, at worst, he was biding time and giving universities the space to operate again.

Yet that is exactly the problem; universities went back to business as usual. While the fees commission was President Zuma’s proposal, what did university management come up with? Nothing and unsurprisingly so because they have had their heads in the sand since 1994 already.

What did students do? Nothing. They too went back to class and continued with business as usual. While they must be commended for turning the spotlight on the challenges of higher education, the space in which they did it was very different from the tactics employed by other stakeholders in higher education.

Students operated in a dynamic, fluid and social movement space. Management, staff and government operate in a more formal and bureaucratic institutional system. Yet students expected a formal and bureaucratic process, the Commission of Inquiry, to be the answer to their dynamic and fluid approach. Oil and water.

The student protests that we have seen happening in South Africa over the last three years highlight the failure of the liberal system. On the one hand, liberals want a state that is less intrusive in universities, as we have seen with university autonomy in the last two decades, but on the other hand, expect the government to solve the universities’ problems when such arise as we have seen in response to the protests.

On the one hand, liberals in South Africa want the government to spend more money per gross domestic product on higher education but on the other hand, they do not want an increase in government expenditure but a reduction of fiscal debt. The government must fund but universities want to dictate what their teaching and research outputs should be.

The government should not formalise institutions such as the institutional forum, a mere consultative forum, but universities want to be leaders in society. Universities should be the fountains of the solutions of society’s problems but our universities turn to government to solve its problems. Here; students, management, and staff are equally complicit.

If anything, the last three years have shown us that the higher education sector in South Africa is a very complex one. It is therefore foolish for students and management to demand from President Zuma his report on but one aspect of the complexity of issues: fees. The commission went wider and spoke about university funding, but again we would be foolish to think that the commission was a silver bullet. We have the report, we’ve done the commission and now what?

Students, staff, and management do not want to change the very structures of our universities. Like the structure of our country’s economy that reproduces structural challenges such as inequality and unemployment, so too our universities reproduce structural challenges in which students, staff, and management are complicit.

Staff and students are in bed with management until wage negotiations and fee increase announcements must take place. They indulge in the structural injustices that create the unsustainable manner, both in content and format, in which our universities operate. Staff and students remain expedient until university management pick on them, yes, the weakest in the trio, to fund this monstrosity of exploitation.

Staff and students are fine to indulge in wasteful expenditures such break-away sessions, huge SRC budgets, meeting meals and budgets even during wage negotiations and fee determinations. Suggest to students that as a standard practice residence rooms should be shared, as is the practice in countries such as China, and see the uproar. As if we grew up in houses where each child had his or her own bedroom. Never mind that we have a massive backlog of student beds and many impoverished students find themselves squatting in township backrooms because they can’t be accommodated at university residences.

Suggest to Cecil John Rhodes students that the name of the university must change and cannot be named after a mass murderer and see the reaction. They would rather have the name of a racist mass murderer on their CVs than the name of a liberation stalwart like Walter Sisulu. In fact, insist on a total ban on ranking, involvement in and reference to the ranking system, as they have done in countries such as the Netherlands, and see staff and students object to this measure.

Propose that sports will be cancelled at universities and that cheaper accommodation in residences will be built on the rugby or soccer fields demanding so much maintenance. Insist that every student must perform community service, with no pay but with services such as transport provided, for at least two semesters during their course which will be compulsory credits towards their degree and see students object.

Implement a cap on the funding received by individual academics so that other academics may also have access to funding or assisted in receiving them. Discourage black students from preferring a white supervisor or ensure that the black supervisor takes a keen interest in black students and pruning them with funding opportunities as the white academic does to his white students and watch the noses go up. Question why postgraduate proposals are hard to get through and see the insistence on ‘standards’.

Question why some black academics deliberately ensure that no more blacks join the department so that they will remain relevant and on top. Ask about the particular onslaught on black academic men in our institutions and these onslaughts being waged by other black academics, used as proxies by their white supervisors, and witness the disdain.

Daily, students are used and mobilised by black academics to wage war against university management and government because they are too cowardly to raise the issues themselves. Many black academics have no qualms in fronting for their white male supervisors.

Suggest that suppliers of food outlets on campus will be black-owned enterprises only and subsidised by the university so as to curb the number of hungry students walking on our campuses and see the consternation of some in the university’s administration. Institute as a rule that every university residence has a vegetable garden and that these are supplied to a student-run market where food suppliers or students can purchase vegetables.

Insist that strict recycling measures be implemented with incentives and water and electricity monthly rationing happen in residences and departments. These measures are not aimed at cutting costs but because there are important things like saving our planet.

The call for the decolonisation of our universities, some of us at least thought, was never just about fees and access. The Heher Commission was all about fees and funding. Yet we are demanding the report be released as if that will change the deep exploitative structures of our universities. Our universities, staff, students, and management, have the answers. They would find it they researched a bit harder, that the solutions to their problems lie within their walls.

Mjajubana is President of the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and NEC Member of SASCO 


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