Parliament picket sparks free-education debate

23 September 2016 | Story by Newsroom
Academics led a picket at Parliament on 22 September 2016 to urge the government to improve its funding of the higher education sector.
Academics led a picket at Parliament on 22 September 2016 to urge the government to improve its funding of the higher education sector.

Hundreds of academics and students picketed outside Parliament on 22 September 2016 to implore the state to improve its funding of South Africa's higher education system.

The picket was arranged by the deanery of UCT's Faculty of Health Sciences. They were joined by scholars from other Western Cape higher education institutions.

On behalf of the university, the faculty handed over a memorandum to the Department of Higher Education and Training. It included an appeal to the national government to provide additional funding to sustain the higher education project and demanded that a new policy for funding higher education must be in place before the 2017/18 budget speech.

“Inadequate investment in higher education will continue to have a major detrimental impact on the development of our country for years to come,” Professor Bongani Mayosi, dean of Health Sciences, read from the statement.

Mayosi hoped that more of his students would have joined the picket. After presenting the draft memorandum to students at an open forum on 21 September, disagreement over whether to include an explicit call for free higher education resulted in the majority of the students present declining the invitation to join the protest. They said that the memorandum did not adequately dovetail with the broader aims of the Fees Must Fall movement.

Mayosi said he was not too concerned with the apparent disjuncture between the students' views and that of the faculty.

“The reason I'm not too concerned is that actually, fundamentally, we agree,” he said. “We just differ in methods, in particular, but we agree that the dialogue is good, and it is good that in our society we've got students that are prepared to speak their views, and we can work with that. I'm sure, over time, we'll develop a consensus of what needs to happen.

“One problem is that we as academics have been out of this game for a while and now we're entering it, we're beginning to engage,” Mayosi added. “As you heard, the students are asking where we have been. We've been missing in action. We're waking up now, playing our role and making a contribution. I'm sure we will have a meeting of the minds with the students.”

Mayosi added that the students themselves were divided. He said there were multiple groups that were actively splintering all the time. There was a need for “cross-talk” among the students, between students and academics, and among academics.

“We as academics also have different views on this particular matter,” said Mayosi.

“The key for us as a university is that all those views must be out there. They must be debated. That's what gives fitness and strength to a university – when there are contending voices. For me, that's exciting, and I can work with that.”

State must do better

Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price commented on the picket's aims: “The picket has at its heart our pleas to Parliament to help us find a solution to the ongoing unrest and, more fundamentally, the ongoing funding issue in higher education.

“We are thankful for the minister's short-term decision that effectively placed a moratorium on fee increases for the poor and the missing middle for the next year (2017). But this is a short-term solution. Our picket is about the long-term issues. We must find a longer-term solution in terms of investment into higher education that will also help us to bring the unrest to an end.”

Dr Lydia Cairncross delivered a counter statement at the picket on behalf of some students and staff of the Faculty of Health Sciences, arguing that the announcement by Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande was “wholly inadequate”.

“We believe that higher education serves a greater public good and is critical in the building of a more just and egalitarian society,” she said. “Public funding of higher education is possible if radical tax reform is implemented – aimed at taxing the top 10% earners and identified high net worth individuals. Free higher education will be an important step in the process of building social solidarity and social cohesion by allowing all recipients to become identified with a commitment to public service and citizenship.

“In line with this, we hereby state our belief in and commitment to the principle of free higher education.”

Why Fees Must Fall didn't picket

Meanwhile, Fees Must Fall student leaders explained their reasons for not joining the picket at Parliament at a press conference attended by hundreds of students and staff later that afternoon.

In the statement, they repeated a comment from health sciences students following the meeting with the deanery on 21 September: “At the meeting, it was expressed by the deanery that they do not collectively agree with the concept of a free, decolonial higher education system. As a result, based on this discussion by the student meeting … we will not support the picket on Parliament.”

Fees Must Fall added: “What does it mean for institutions to condemn protest action over the last 18 months and now call upon students to join them in protest? We cannot be instrumentalised and we must not allow these divisive tactics to succeed.

“Whilst we acknowledge progressive efforts from academics, universities must support the call for decolonisation if there is to be any meaningful alliance with students and workers. Universities must support free decolonised Afrocentric education – otherwise we are not fighting for the same thing and we will not be picketing by their side only to protest [again] next year.”

The demand for free, decolonised and de-commodified, Afrocentric education extended from early childhood development to tertiary education, they said.

The students said they remained open to future collaborations, so while not categorically rejecting academics and welcoming these efforts, “we are not protest cows and have no intention of picketing every year in tandem with more task teams and pleas for more university funding by the state, which fall on deaf ears and quite simply are not a sustainable solution to the challenges faced in the higher education sector”.

“When we do go to Parliament, it will be to call for free, decolonised Afrocentric education.”

Story Yusuf Omar. Photo Je'nine May.

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