The Tertiary Education Sector

All students should have access to free education. However, the student protestors demanding free education must have the rigor to conceive of mechanisms to achieve free education, and this has been a major problem with the #Feesmustfall movement. We suggest two possible areas of funding. First, we undertake income and wealth assessments of students entering tertiary education. We develop a gradation scale in which fees are pegged according to the overall income and wealth of student’s family. The privileged, rich and elite will be required to pay higher fees. In this system, the top 10% of students from privileged, rich and elite families and backgrounds will be required to pay up to 500% of current student fees. The bottom 10% on this graded system will pay absolutely no fees. This will in no way affect the allocation of NSFAS loans. What we are undertaking here is a redistribution of wealth at the point of contact with the tertiary sector. Secondly, we must implement a 10% flat tax on all transactions on the JSE, as well as imposing a graded tax on financial speculation. This will go straight to financing the tertiary education sector with a specific focus on reducing overall student fees.

We need to go further than this. There has been a wide and often acrimonious discussion on ‘state capture’. There is another issue that we need to deal with, and that is the capture of universities to corporate interests. In the tertiary education sector we see that private interests and corporations are providing funding that utilizes the institution of the academy for the purposes of research, while retaining the rights to all innovation and technology thus derived. We see that their influence goes deeper than this in our universities: through extensive funding, private interests and corporations control the administrative and decision-making bodies in these institutions, dictating policies which benefit them. The academy was born out of an idea of a space that was free for expression, that promoted scholarship and learning, and that was – as an institution – independent from this type of ‘capture’. What we need to do is to develop legislation that limits the ability of third-parties financing studies and research at universities. Investment and funding should be channeled through the NRF, HSRC and similar bodies, with no stipulations by third-parties regarding the allocation of funding. We need to eliminate entirely the ability of third-parties, corporations and private interests from influencing the university-politic. What we need to fundamentally attempt is the total de-commodification of education in this country.

There is another issue regarding this that we need to consider. That is the social responsibility that graduates have. While we acknowledge that education is a fundamental human right, graduates of tertiary education institutions also have a responsibility to society as a whole. We must impose legislation that requires all graduates to undertake a period of duty to society through working on key government projects and programmes. This is similar to the community service requirement made of medicine students – however, we must expand this to encompass all graduates. Further, in critical areas such as medicine, engineering and education we must extend these periods of community service to more accurately reflect the period spent studying and the obligation placed on these students with respect to society. We must also close any loopholes that allow graduates to pay their way out of compulsory national service. This system will have several advantages. Firstly, it will disincentive those entering key areas (notably medicine and engineering) seeking only to make large earnings, and draft more socially conscious students who are interested in helping society, not simply themselves. Secondly, it will install a new sense of public service in young person’s graduating from our tertiary education institutions. Thirdly, we will ensure that our graduates have experience working in their respective fields as well as experience in working with government. Fourthly, we will ensure that our brightest will serve the state and society in their most productive years.

We also need to examine the university curriculum more deeply. We need to acknowledge the legacy of colonialism as well as that of neo-colonialism. Students in the sciences and commerce must be given a more thorough education in the humanities. What is proposed is that all students be required to undertake – during their first year of study – a compulsory course of sciences, arts and humanities. We will use this year to ensure that – to use two examples, that humanities students have an awareness of science, and that science/engineering students are grounded in the humanities and social concerns. This requires us to reconfigure the standard three-year degree so that it becomes a four-year degree (and similar for four-year engineering and six-year medical degrees). We will also use this year to ensure that any failings of the secondary education sector in South Africa are dealt with and that students can confidently address their future studies. We need to go further than this, however. We need to reconfigure the curriculum and our pedagogy such that it speaks to African concerns, to African discourse and narrative. We need to introduce study that highlights the legacy of neo-colonialism, of Apartheid and historical contingencies. We need a university curriculum that is more sensitive to women, race, disability, gender, sex and other areas of diversity. We can achieve this by requiring students to either submit to an additional year of funded study in which they are exposed to the broadest form of education; alternatively we can legislate minimum study requirements for qualification completion.

Beyond this we also need to refocus the universities and other tertiary education sector institutions on a trajectory that sees them providing critical skills in order to address the massive skill shortages and distortions in our society. It is a fact of reality that we first address our skills shortages, and we must address the need for STEM and health science graduates etc. We are living in a critical juncture in our country’s development. We cannot afford to allow our youth and the brightest amongst us to spend their time in areas that do not address the needs our country has if we are going to pursue a developmental and progressive agenda. While we acknowledge the importance of all spheres of the university, we must focus on addressing skills shortages. We need to broaden our focus from what has traditionally been seen as the role of higher education, i.e. universities. We also need to broaden what students at universities learn. This can be implemented by requiring universities to broaden STEM (as one example) admission numbers. It can also be achieved by legislating where government funding goes and ensuring that government funding addresses key skill needs and shortages.

There needs to a fundamental change to the culture present in universities. We need to divest our universities of neo-liberal and indeed liberal rot. We need to stop the advance of anti-majoritarian thinking that pervades the student bodies in our universities. We cannot allow the universities to become the playground of elites, the privileged and the wealthy. Our universities still function as apartheid-era institutions, replicating the massive social and income inequalities in our societies, perpetuating the elite, installing in our youth a culture of entitlements and so on. We must address those institutions that were, in the Apartheid dispensation, allocated for ‘bantu’ education. There is a massive distortion between universities such as UCT and the University of Fort Hare: we need to create not simply opportunity of access for all persons to enter the university system: we must ensure that educational outcomes are not significantly distorted in the manner we have presently. We must also address a culture that sees entrance to university as the be-all and end-all of education. We must create a culture that sees study of trade-skills (such as plumbing) and other forms of tertiary education as being equally valid choices and as seeing persons who enter these forms of education as contributing equally to those graduating from university.

Moreover, we need to take the ‘Battle of Ideas’ to universities. We need to acknowledge that tertiary education sector institutions are major sources for ideology. These institutions have a key role to play in generating a national narrative that focuses on a progressive realization of human rights and generally a progressive agenda. The youth of today will be the leaders and shapers of the future: we need to ensure that they are comprehensively exposed to key ideological concepts. We need to strengthen the left at our universities, and educate our students on issues such as the struggles faced by workers, the dangers of allowing neo-liberals to capture key state institutions including the onslaught the working class and the poor face are faced with, amongst other issues. Our universities have become major vectors for the perpetuation and dissemination of neo-liberal, individualist, materialistic and conservative discourses. The curriculum and pedagogy of our higher education institutions must serve the needs of our development state and must serve the needs of all society, including and specifically the poor and working classes. They must become sites of transformation focused on achieving a progressive agenda.

We need to do more to incorporate the under-privileged and the working class such that they have equitable, meaningful access to our universities. And this means acknowledging that many of our students come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and are significantly educationally impaired as a result of it. We need to address these distortions in the education system that feeds into the tertiary education sector. This goes beyond student fees. It speaks to the culture of deprivation that permeates our society. It speaks to the ability of each and every student to undertake higher education studies in a meaningful way. We need to stop relegating students from disadvantaged backgrounds, who have become marginalized in our higher education institutions. We can achieve this by providing these students with broad assistance.

In conclusion: first, we must transform the higher education sector so that it more accurately reflects the idea that education is a right and not a privilege; secondly, we need to transform the tertiary education sector so that it speaks to and responds to national and social needs; thirdly, we need to transform the discourses present in our universities and other higher education sectors to eliminate scourges such as neo-liberal ideology; finally, we must address the issue of how students fund their higher education studies. What is needed now is a fundamental re-think of the role of higher education institutions and how they must respond to society.


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