The protests against escalating fees at South Africa’s tertiary institutions will be talked about for some time to come.
The political nature of the uprising which began at Wits University and spread like wildfire to other parts of the country is seen by some as a springboard for change, not only at tertiary level, but within the broader South African context as well.
However, one aspect that seemingly is being overlooked as canisters of teargas rain down and new hashtags flood social media faster than a fleeing activist is how places of higher learning will be administered going forward.
Within the tertiary education sector, there have always been Student Representative Councils (SRCs) which have been elected to engage with upper management. However, these, too, have become highly politicised entities, in that members fall under the auspices of one or other youth wing of the larger umbrella party.
Essentially, that means that university governors will need to increasingly take into account the agendas of those parties, not simply the day-to-day student concerns as in the past.
Part of that process will be a greater appreciation of a student’s right to demonstrate. In a country like South Africa, where events and processes are constantly on a knife-edge, there is a very strong likelihood of disruptions to the annual curriculum and exam timetables becoming commonplace.
In the mining sector, for example, “strike season” has become part of the national dialogue. At least once every two years wage demands are made of mining company executives, a standoff ensues for several months and a deal is finally brokered. The economy loses billions of rands, and everybody moves on – until the next season.
Disruptions to education – be it teacher or student strikes – can have an equally detrimental effect on the economy.
Graduates are extremely important for a country’s economic standing. Provided they are given the necessary grounding, they will not only be invaluable assets to companies but will be furnished with the skills to start their own businesses.
There certainly is validation behind the calls for lower fees, for this very reason. However, there is the distinct impression that students’ actions will be repeated in the months and years to come when other issues arise.
One should remember
In order to limit disruptions to a learner’s studies, tertiary institutions might wish to consider placing a greater emphasis on online courses and tutorials, which are becoming increasingly popular both for students and those pursuing education jobs.
Already UCT, UCT the Graduate School of Business and Wits are offering such courses, after partnering with online short course specialists Getsmarter.
It is entirely feasible that these courses could work on the larger scale, given that the shorter iterations have proved successful. While there is no substitute for the traditional lecture hall experience, South Africa is a country that needs to adapt.
Solving the country’s myriad problems is not going to happen overnight, regardless of whether people believe that or not, but what cannot be allowed to happen is students falling behind in their studies as issues are being worked out, either on the streets or in legislation.
Every option should be explored to ensure that does not happen.