Preparing SA for free, quality decolonial education

27 July 2017 | Opinion Loretta Feris.

The call for free, quality decolonial education over the last two years has laid bare systemic failures in the national higher education system. As Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation and Student Affairs at the University of Cape Town, I have been privileged to support work on exploring the possibilities for free, decolonial education at UCT.

The focus of the call for free education is tied to the financial exclusion of academically eligible students, but also extends to the fundamental question of education as a public good. It has raised central questions about the role of universities in providing access to education, while simultaneously questioning a higher education funding model that relies on turning education into a marketable commodity.

The global trend towards commodification is linked to the ever-shrinking budgets for public funding of education while responding to a requirement that universities provide graduates that are market ready. This view shifts away from the role of universities as places where education traverses disciplinary silos, where students develop social and political understanding, regardless of discipline, and where research unlocks old and new knowledge systems to merge into its curriculum.

The call for free, decolonial education in South Africa is not only a challenge to current funding models of higher education. It has a number of important strands. It is a call for access to education out of the legacy of colonisation and apartheid, deep-seated poverty, structural inequalities and systemic crime and violence in our country.

It is a call that also challenges higher education as one that is primarily focused on western epistemologies, erasing the voices of the global south and of Africa in particular. It is a call that neither the South African government nor South African universities can ignore.

It is therefore disappointing that there has been a further delay in the release of the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training (the Fees Commission) report. It raises concerns about what this delay may signal for the demand for free, decolonial education across all campuses. Nonetheless, we must also recognise that we cannot, as universities, be silent while we await the next round of protests.

At the end of last year, stemming from an agreement with students in November 2016, the executive invited the UCT community and the Cape Town community at large to participate in a process where we begin to understand the challenges in funding higher education appropriately, and simultaneously responding to the call for free, decolonial education in a manner that is research-led and consultative.

The process has seen the establishment of the Free Education Planning Group, which is made up of students, staff (including insourced workers), the executive, parents and alumni. In parallel, UCT has also established the curriculum change working group to interrogate issues around how our curriculum is taught.

The Free Education Planning Group has produced research that has highlighted, through a series of video clips, some of the very real financial burdens that students carry. They have also produced a booklet that sets out some of the initial thinking around free, decolonial education, in particular possible models to fund free education.

Six sources of funding have been analysed. These are: the tax system; a form of community service where graduates work in public service for a certain period; different fee structures that require richer students to pay progressively higher fees; a graduate tax that taxes graduates at a progressively higher tax rate than non-graduates; income contingent loans with repayments based on earnings thresholds; and increasing the role played by the private sector. Read Protesting Policy for more information on these models.

The group had engagements both on and off campus. Through the lens of the impact, the implementation, the ability to redress and a vision for a reimagined society, themes such as the trade-offs of the various funding models, their sustainability, the role of black taxes and access to holistic student support have emerged from these discussions.

The commodification of education has also revealed deeper frustrations from participating staff and students alike. The result is the need to interrogate the value creation that results from knowledge in ways that extend beyond fees and funding.

The shift is towards identifying valuation metrics that assess the quality and value of education based on its social and public benefit, rather than on how much one is willing to pay for it. The second round of research is currently interrogating the issues raised during engagement sessions.

At UCT this is the start of a process. It has not been an easy one. It has called for working across serious trust deficits, especially those that have existed between students and management. It has also required the buy-in of deans and wardens as current engagements are happening within faculties and within residences.

Finally, it should be stressed that students have had to balance their own study loads while engaging in this work. While there may not be agreement about what the future of higher education will look like, there is certainly an emerging commitment to interrogate the principle.

This opinion piece first appeared on News24.

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