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Nationalise the Universities for Free Education

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In February this year, adding my voice to student protests for free tertiary education, monolingual medium of instruction at former white universities, and other transformational issues, I wrote the article entitledOur Black Professionals are Apologists of a White Supremacy, wherein urging that, for a change, let us forget about the ANC and its failures, and focus on our universities and their failure to transform. Furthermore, I urged that we should forget about Jacob Zuma and his failures, and focus on his fervent critics, the black academics who have failed to transform their own institutions.

Barely a fortnight later, Sunday Independent published articles by renowned black academics, Professor Tinyiko Maluleke and Professor Xolela Mangcu, also adding their voices to the student protests, which had turned violent. In the article Someone Please Dial 911 for Varsities, Maluleke calls for an intervention from the government, the NGOs, the chapter nine institutions, parents, and ordinary citizens. He does not address the student demands, or provide a feasible model for free tertiary education.

Mangcu did the same in the article entitled, UCT Needs Leaders, not Managers. He blames UCT Vice-Chancellor and Principal Max Price for a shortage of residential accommodation and a lack of transformation at the university. Nevertheless, I do concur with him that the UCT, where a group of black students had erected a shack in the main campus to highlight the shortage of residential accommodation, needs a leader. A PhD degree, or a professorship does not make one a leader.

In fact, all the universities need leaders. For example, instead of going to the ground and address the student demands, Wits Vice-Chancellor and Principal Adam Habib plays to the media gallery. Exacerbating the volatile situation, Wits conducted a poll to determine whether the students want to resume with the lectures, or not. This has pitted the students against each other and may lead to unnecessary loss of lives. To date, the university has lost a staff member over the protests.

Logically, the students whose parents can afford to pay the exorbitant fees or studying with bursaries have voted for resumption of the lectures. In contrast, those who study with an NSFAS loan have voted for free tertiary education. According to interim results, over 70 percent of the students want to resume with the lectures.     

Habib claims that the universities would not able to undertake a cutting-edge research without the fee increase. Nevertheless, the very same universities cannot undertake a research on a feasibility of the free tertiary education. It is not surprising, though, as our universities – over two decades in a post-colonial regime – are still offering a neo-colonial education system, which does not provide African solutions to African problems. At least it is refreshing to hear some students calling for de-colonisation of the universities. In fact, the entire education system needs de-colonisation.

Another example that the universities need leaders is how their managers respond to the student protests. They tighten up the security in the campuses and seek court interdicts against the protesting students. This pits the students against the ill-trained police and security. Neither the police, nor the security can stop a revolution.

Ironically, deflecting the spotlight away from the university managers, Wits Professor Susan Booysen called on the ANC to show a ‘robust leadership’. Her call boggled my mind, as the ANC itself is a leadership crisis, from Zuma to ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. For example, weighing in on the student protests, Mantashe called for a shutdown of the universities for six months.

To start with, the students’ demand for free tertiary education is not new. In fact, it is, in part, due to the ANC’s failure to deliver on its populist promise of free tertiary education. It made the promise without economic power.

For starters, the tertiary education is not a public good. It is a private commodity, largely exclusive to the rich. Hence, the universities are autonomous to regulate their own affairs, including setting fee increases. In most cases, their fee increases are not within an inflationary range.

The poor Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has no legislative power to set the university fee increases. He could only plead with the universities not to exceed a maximum of eight percent. This, however, does not exonerate him. He should resign.

Nzimande has no plan to address the student demands. For example, he has called on the private sector to provide the residential accommodation. He should know better that the private sector is not an NGO. It would come to the party at a cost.

Clearly, our black academics have failed to come up with a feasible model to provide free tertiary education. In the immediate, the state can provide free tertiary education through the NSFAS loan. However, the loan is not sustainable on two accounts. First, both a number of applicants and university fees shoot up every year, making it impossible to accommodate every poor student. 

Second, most NSFAS graduates are in debt and cannot afford to repay the loan. Most of them, if not all, bear a burden of ‘black tax’. Some NSFAS graduates are jobless while a bunch of unqualified people in both private and public sector hold executive positions.

Although the universities have institutional autonomy to regulate their own affairs, they cannot provide free education. Therefore, to deliver on its promise of free tertiary education, the ANC-government should de-commodify education system, from pre-school level to tertiary level, and nationalise the universities – that is, curtail their institutional autonomy. Thereafter, it should do the following to provide a sustainable free tertiary education:

  • covert the NSFAS loan into a scholarship and introduce an education tax;
  • capacitate TUT, UNISA, and other universities with geographic footprints in most parts of the country to offer telematic teaching; and;
  • combine a four-year degree with an honours degree;

In addition, the ANC-government should do the following to generate the wherewithal to provide tertiary education in the immediate:

  • merge sort of duplicates ministries such as basic education and higher education and training ministries into one ministry to reduce cabinet size;
  • remove incompetent and mediocre public servants such as SABC head of corporate affairs Hlaudi Motsoeneng and SAA chairperson Dudu Myeni and employ skilled people to run the SOEs more profitably;
  • offer unskilled public servants close to retirement age early packages to resign and employ skilled people to reduce the government’s reliance on consultants;
  • legalise small businesses, including foreign owned and run tuckshops, to pay tax;
  • recoup an estimated R20 billion from ABSA, the FNB, and Nedbank from ‘lifeboats’.

Lastly, the National Assembly, which has legislative power over the national sphere of government, should convene a sitting to push for de-commodification of the tertiary education, nationalisation of the universities, and introduction of the education tax among others. Most importantly, it should push for wherewithal to cover the student fees, including historical debts, in order to end the protests.

Understandably, some parties such as the DA may oppose any attempt to de-commodify the tertiary education and nationalise the universities. However, the DA should be aware that it may govern the country in 2019. It would find itself in the ANC’s shoes.

Molifi Tshabalala is author of the book, The Thoughts of an Ordinary Citizen

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