Should all our #institutionsfall?

2015 and 2016 are arguably the Years of the Fallists in South Africa. From #rhodesmustfall to #datamustfall, there was a plethora of social media, and real world, campaigns calling for a radical break from the status quo.

It is very easy to argue that its merely populist elements raising their heads, or even more ominously, the emergence of a fascist element. Dennis Davis gives a sober warning about fallists, particularly academics, that support ‘disruption for its own sake, which in the current environment has violent undertones coated in warped identity politics.’

But to believe that this is a purely South African phenomenon is incorrect. Indeed the overall situation is a lot more nuanced than popular media would have us believe. These protests are taking place in the context of a global social shift. If you pay attention to the events around world, there is growing unrest with the status quo and people generally don’t trust institutions, particularly government. Rachel Botsman gave a TED talk about how people are increasingly losing trust in traditional institutions whilst simultaneously putting their trust in unknown entities and people.  In a recent Gallup poll, they have found Americans trust in their government and its related institutions are at an all time low. Many would argue that this distrust underpins Donald Trump’s meteoric rise. In South Africa, and rest of the continent, the picture is not very different.

In recent times, no institution has faced the level of upheaval than our universities which are at the coalface of the anger against the prevailing socio-economic system. A university, as some would argue, is a microcosm of society. Therefore, understanding and dealing with what is going on there, serves as a good basis for creating solutions on a larger scale.

Coming back to the South African context, often on social media, and in the real world context  people ascribe nefarious intent to heads of institutions but gladly follow mysterious people or processes. But does this mean that all traditional institutions, including universities, should fall? I don’t believe so. What I do believe its that there needs to be a drastic re-ordering of the our institutions if they have any hope of survival.

One of the key contours that should guide our re-ordering of the prevailing social milieu is ensuring the appropriate inclusion of women. It is one thing to decolonise the curriculum and ensure properly funded access for poor. But, without a concerted effort to ensure that women don’t get left behind, at any level, there can easily be a roll back towards a more intense patriarchy. We can already see the pockets of this in the fallist movements, where women and non hetero-normative activists, although being literally on the frontline, have been increasingly and sometimes violently side-lined. We can’t allow this to become the new status quo.

Without a doubt is that change is coming. Within our circle of influence we have an unprecedented opportunity to work towards building a just and equitable society. However, we have to be conscious where we place our trust. I would end with a quote for you to ponder from George Orwell’s 1984, which admittedly may be considered a bit subversive: “power is not a means; it’s an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship”.

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.