Fees must fall to a number Zuma can read

This week (19th September) has marked horrible protesting at Wits. In fact the Great Hall in which I have graduated three times was defaced. I did not take kindly to this. Nor did I take kindly to the fact that chairs built by Wits architectural students were set alight. I was also not impressed by the finding of three petrol bombs on campus. The situation is dire, and what is the government’s solution – passing the buck to the Universities. Good luck Wits- you find a solution to the war on your doorstep.

I am from a privileged background; however I do not think that this negates my opinion. I feel silenced and unwelcome in my own university and so does a large majority of students.  In a poll last week, 70% of students voted to reopen the university. The SRC is acting largely on behalf of a section of students that feel it is less important to come up with a viable solution (a process that will take years) and more important to protest the injustice (because, yes, the system is unjust). But let’s face it: whether the system is fair or not, we still all want to graduate. Can’t we work on a solution while still building on our individual futures?

I have had many debates about this topic in the last month. My go-to story is one I will now relay here:  in my third and final year of undergrad I could not secure any kind of funding to pay the university. The banks were treating me as if I was Richie Rich and my parents too rich to fit into the NSFAS scheme. I was also in the top 5 of undergrads in my course. How can it be that no help can be given and no scholarships were readily available to a top student? The system is intensely flawed. However the radical solution of free education is just not a desirable one with the economy as it is. Books, machinery and lecturers are getting more and more expensive and quite frankly, the universities can’t cope anyway. We don’t go into Exclusive Books, see a book we’ve wanted for ages, and demand that it should be free because the price has gone up too much for our liking. Tertiary education is not a right, it is a privilege, and that is the case in all third world countries.

Yes, our country still faces huge racial inequalities, but the challenge of funding higher education is not primarily a race-biased issue. In fact, here is a disturbing statistic: South Africa only spends 0.71% of its GDP on education, compared to 3% that China spends. But even worse: what good is free tertiary education if the majority of students are not equipped to handle the work load?

I was horrified by this graph from the CHET and DET cohort studies showing students that started university in 2008 (the year I started): only 30% of students actually finish a 3-year Bachelor’s degree within 3 years.



Source: CHET

This already tells us something – our basic and secondary education is not reaching the people it needs to. The entire issue can be summarised as a “…highly unequal schooling system where access to high-quality schooling largely depends on a family’s ability to pay school fees,” eloquently put by Nic Spaull in his fantastic blog. This class divide happens to be along racial lines as well, thanks to that constant burden, Apartheid. 60% of White matric students achieved 60% or more in matric; only 5% of Black African matrics score at or above 60%. Good secondary education is still not accessible to most people: of the 1 million kids who enter Grade 1, only 100 000 will enter university, and 53 000 will graduate after 6 years (Van den Berg, 2015).oecd

This government has to start feeding money into making the best schools into practical models for the rest of the country. Teaching is not an easy job and should not be the easiest degree to get into (requiring only E’s) and these human heroes need to be paid adequately. Being a teacher needs to be a high-status job, and paid as such: our country’s future depends on the motivation levels and quality of our educators.

For now, a potential solution may be to make correspondence schools like UNISA free, where there are no additional living costs attached to the student. Basic education is a right. Why is no one fighting for that??? We can put plasters on gaping wounds but at some point it will need surgery. Maybe soon, we will have a president that can read the budget, and things will improve. But then again, he also suffered from a lack of basic education.







Don’t judge a fish by how it rides a bicycle

Today at the ripe age of 26, I learnt how to ride a bike. It was an embarrassing process. Let me first say that I can’t blame my parents for my lack of cycling skills: When I was 5, I got my first bike. I had fairy wheels and a steep hill to kill myself on but my riding days ended right there. I was far more interested in science and the world of Roald Dahl than anything that mobile death trap could offer me.

So, how many degrees does it take to learn to ride a bike? Nearly 4, it seems.

Today’s lesson started out with a valiant effort from my boyfriend holding on to the back of the bike. He tried giving me tons of useful information but naturally I ignored him. I kept insisting that, “I know how a gyroscope works thank you very much.” But maybe for the first time in my life, I just didn’t trust the science. I insisted that if those wheels managed to keep me up it was sorcery and all the billions of people who had learnt to ride a bike previously were aliens.

I was surprised at how quickly I turned on physics just because I was failing. Was I one of one of those people that only believed in science when it was convenient? After giving myself a pep talk, I tackled the problem head on. Quite literally actually – I headed straight for a wall, followed by colliding with my long-suffering significant other. This experience has taught me several important lessons:

1) Sometimes it’s embarrassing to learn new things, but what’s worse is never learning them.

2) There is nothing wrong with being a well – rounded human AND scientist; in fact it’s the only way to live. I used to think that if I did anything other than science I would be a bad researcher. But embracing the world around you is the reason we are here- to live life and be fascinated by it.

3) Trust in science. It is, in its purest form, un-opinionated and unassuming. I was wrong to doubt you, Physics.

4) Be kind to your loved ones. You never know when you might seriously maim them when you are unable to operate a break on a mountain bike.

5) Let go of the labels that define you. I was the nerdy, sarcastic, smart person who was incompetent at any physical activity. Except I’m not – I can ride a bike well(ish). I used to be a disaster in the kitchen but it was only because I told myself I was. Now I cook all the time and do it pretty darn well. Who knows, maybe I’ll be Tour de Francing one day.

6) Be kind to yourself. That spills over into your PhD too. Don’t kill yourself trying to reinvent the wheel. Stand on the shoulders of giants, then get a little taller and let others stand on yours.

7) Life is for the living. Being a scientist means always seeking out new things and interrogating them. While many scientists do this in their work life they don’t always do it away from the pipette. Try to be the kind of person who fully embraces their life, even when it’s hard and little children mock you. Remember that you can drive a car and don’t rely on mom to chaperone.

Ultimately it didn’t matter how many degrees I had. It didn’t matter that I’m accomplished in many areas of my life. Don’t judge a fish by its ability to ride a bicycle. This is the proverbial fish signing off.