Toppling the universities

William Gild says four important questions need to be asked about the current crisis

The costs of chaos at our universities

Eighteen of the 26 institutions of higher learning in South Africa are currently closed, with more likely to achieve that “status”.

As Dr. Habib, VC of Wits, pointed out in a recent article (Politicsweb, October 4 ) a billion Rand’s worth of damages have been wrought on SA’s institutions of higher learning. This astonishing figure (a billion Rand would support 10,000 students – full tuition, board and lodging for a year) accounts only for damage to, and destruction of, infrastructure.

It does not include the hundreds of thousands of Rand spent on obtaining interdicts (UCT alone spent R250,000 on its repeatedly and openly violated interdict earlier this year ), in-sourcing of non-academic staff, the incalculable, but surely massive costs, of endless ( and, to date, totally unproductive ) negotiations and arbitrations with protesters, the costs associated with countless disciplinary proceedings, and the incalculable costs to students ( and their parents ) who will , at best, have to repeat this semester’s studies, and, at worst, will not graduate in 2016.

If the 2016 academic year is not completed, the affected universities will be compelled to provide free tuition for the first 3 months of the 2017 academic year (in other words, zero fee income for those 3 months) and qualified 2016 matriculants will not be able to begin their studies until the deferred 2016 classes and exams have concluded.

But it doesn’t stop there. The hiring of private security, costs associated with overtime pay for SAPS personnel, and the inevitable loss of significant income from foreign students who will, when the universities devolve into nothing more than glorified training colleges, cease coming here (UCT alone has a foreign contingent of roughly 12% of the student body).

One cannot ignore the inevitable drying up of overseas research moneys when all those capable of actually doing research and successfully applying for overseas funding, are incentivized or forced into early retirement, and are replaced by those “fast-tracked” up the professorial ladder and who are not likely to attract overseas funding for research they may or may not even bother to, or be qualified for, doing.

The larger and more prestigious universities attract significant sums of money from thousands of alumni (especially those earning foreign currency), not to mention that garnered from major corporations and foundations both within the country, and foreign. Scenes of mayhem, and collective university leadership apparently not being in any kind of control of their institutions, must surely negatively impact future giving.

Reports and scenes of rampaging mobs, together with a sense that academic standards will degrade in an atmosphere of chaos (not to mention other causes), will compel our best and brightest youngsters to continue their education overseas, thus compounding a brain drain that has been ongoing for decades.

That tertiary education in SA is in a state of crisis would be a gross understatement. Industry and commerce are crying out for qualified and competent university graduates. The already fairly dire situation of the SA economy cannot but be negatively impacted by the fracturing of the pipeline of well-educated technocrats and intellectuals, which only functioning universities can fill.

The costs to which I allude are not an ephemeral concept. They involve real money, which, as the expression goes, “doesn’t grow on trees “. As trite as that aphorism sounds, it is real. Moneys already expended, not to mention likely future costs, will need to be paid. The resultant strain on the fiscus will inevitably result in the reduction of money available for poverty relief and other critically important national needs.

Another trite aphorism: robbing Peter to pay Paul. Treasury has finite funds, and what goes to paying for this disastrous state of affairs will, ineluctably, be debited against other pressing needs.

Yes, Treasury can borrow the additional funds it requires. All governments carry sovereign debt, but there’s a catch – the borrowed funds have to be repaid, with interest, and the higher the perceived risk of default, the higher the interest rate demanded by foreign investors.

Anarchy and chaos at the country’s universities do not go unnoticed by overseas bond purchasers. They are sophisticated people who run the projections, do the math, and make decisions based on what they see. What they are seeing right now is not pretty.

Four important questions need to be asked:

1. Why, in the face of repeated failure, do some VC’s especially Max Price of UCT) persist in the delusion that negotiations with students ( and, how many are actually students ) will bear fruit?

2. How has it come to pass that a tiny minority (several hundred out of a combined student population – at Wits and UCT – of approximately 60,000) of vandals have been allowed to terrorize these great institutions?

3. Who is pulling the strings? It is inconceivable that the hooliganism gripping the country’s tertiary education system is entirely spontaneous and locally inspired.

4. Why are those who are committing criminal acts (arson, intimidation, trespass, assault, repeated violations of High Court interdicts, obstruction of public byways, malicious damage to public infrastructure, to mention but a few) not being effectively dealt with by the criminal justice system? As Dr. Habib also pointed out (Politicsweb, October 4) not one conviction has been secured against those who have committed criminal acts. Is it mere incompetence on the part of the SAPS and local prosecutors, or is it something more ominous?

We have seen a steady progression from Rhodes Must Fall, through Fees Must Fall, to, now, fee-free education, not to mention (along the way) transformation (whatever that actually means), decolonization (a baffling subject, if ever there was one), and a panoply of gender-related issues.

There is no reason to believe that resolution of any (or all) of these issues will not simply spawn additional, as yet unascertained, issues. It is the author’s firm belief that nefarious forces are intent on nothing less than the total degradation of higher education in SA, and if an “issue” doesn’t exist, one will be manufactured.

The author cannot claim to hold any answers to the disaster that is unfolding in this country; far more erudite and knowledgeable people have, are, and will continue to contribute to this “conversation”.

Especially of concern is the fact that those most affected by this crisis are, and will be, the economically marginalized. This group constitutes a large majority of the university (and general) population. These youngsters desire, and deserve, nothing less than the opportunity to learn, acquire skills and improve their lot in life.

That said, it is imperative that civil society understands that what has, and is, occurring throughout the country poses an existential threat to our future as a functional democracy, a modern, industrialized economy, and a country that can proudly claim its place in the community of nations; and not as a “failed state”.

Civil society must make its voice heard, through letter writing, contacting their local, provincial and national representatives, and organizing massive vigils and marches. Permission for the vigils and marches must be obtained from local authorities, they must be peaceful, and police protection must be assured.

The author has little doubt that said these actions are feasible, and that if sufficient numbers can be mobilized it will provide succour to the overwhelming majority of students who wish to learn, enter the workforce as competent and qualified citizens, and thereby build their own careers and realize their dreams.

Civil society must urgently commence taking note, and taking action. It simply isn’t enough to wring our hands and complain. The future of our youngsters, and of the country cannot be relegated to a small group of hooligans.

Civil society has a duty to those yearning to better themselves, contribute to the country, and to move up the economic ladder. Only through quality education, at all levels, can this be achieved. 

Updated version published 6.10.