28 April 2021 | Story Prof Francis Petersen | Photo Sonia Small (Kaleidoscope Studios)
Prof Francis Petersen is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of the University of the Free State (UFS).

You should have seen it coming. In the wake of the recent student protests and resulting suspension of tuition on some higher education campuses throughout the country, management teams from public universities have become used to having this bit of stinging criticism levelled against us from various fronts. 

You should have seen it coming. 

And the implied add-on: You could have done something to stop it.

But as with most crises, foreseeing something and preventing it are often worlds apart. 
That much we have learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. For decades preceding 2020, health scientists and a large section of the informed public had known that the world’s next big health crisis would probably be caused by some variant of the coronavirus. Yet “seeing it coming” could not prevent an eventual outbreak.

In the same way that the COVID-19 pandemic exposed fault lines in the global health system, student protests continue to expose fault lines in our higher education funding model. 

The unfortunate truth is that no single institution’s foresight and ameliorative measures can prevent the outbreak of symptoms of a deeper systemic problem that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive, sustainable way and on a national level.  

Complicating the access challenge

In a post-COVID-19 landscape, it is even more challenging to find solutions for students’ very legitimate demands for access to education. Here at the beginning of 2021, we find ourselves in a fragile society ravaged by illness, loss, fear and uncertainty and reeling from the lingering effects of sweeping economic blows.

It is more important than ever to keep the wellbeing and future of an entire society in mind when making decisions affecting individuals.

It is equally vital to be guided by principles of social justice in every decision, striking a careful balance between different rights. In our case: The right to demonstrate versus the right to safety and protection of property; and the right to education of those wanting to enter an institution versus the rights of those already studying within that institution.

The need to look beyond one’s own rights and also consider the rights of others is aptly reflected in the masked faces we see around us nowadays. A face mask ultimately offers greater protection to bystanders than to the individual wearing it. This attitude of always considering the “greater good” should more than ever guide our decisions in all spheres of society.

And here universities have a continued vital role to play: To not only equip graduates with skills and knowledge, but to help create responsible citizens with a wider vision than just the immediate. 

Current financial model unsustainable

It is clear that the current model of student funding in South Africa is simply unsustainable. 

Student numbers rise each year, as does inflation. Household incomes are not keeping up, leading to more and more families who will qualify for the subsidised free higher education for households with a combined annual income of R350 000 or less, announced by former president Jacob Zuma four years ago. 

Add to that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that has placed tremendous extra pressure on the fiscus, plus the apparent challenges that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) experiences in administering student bursaries, and it becomes clear that government simply will not be able to sustain these financial commitments going forward.

Short term vs sustainable solutions 

It is also clear that government’s reaction to this year’s student protest dilemma, i.e. re-allocating funds originally earmarked for other areas within higher education, was a short-term solution. Continued measures like these will, in the long term, only lead to the steady deterioration of the very institutions these students are trying to access.

Likewise, a cancellation of students’ so-called “historical debt” (at the moment adding up to around R14 billion) will have a devastating effect on South Africa’s higher education institutions. .  

Once again, a well-considered balancing of interests is required – facilitating access to higher education while at the same time ensuring the sustainability of institutions.

Tackling change together

We live in a time where, on different fronts, courage is needed to do things differently.  
When it comes to finding a new financial solution for higher education, we should think beyond a mere tinkering of existing models, tweaking it here and there, and rather consider total transformation.

One of the models that show great potential is the income-contingent loan scheme, whereby students start paying loans back once they have secured a regular income, with specific parameters in place to ensure sustainability. 

But regardless of what model is chosen to replace the status quo, one thing is certain:
it will require a combined effort and commitment from government, higher education institutions as well as the private sector. 

At a time when there is a great emphasis on distancing, there needs to be a huddling and a clustering on another level.  We all need to take hands and move closer together to find solutions for a problem that ultimately affects all of us.

It is abundantly clear that there is an urgent need for significant private sector involvement, not only from potential financers like banks and pension funds, but by all potential future employers in all business sectors.

Ultimately, both public and private sectors are key beneficiaries of the output of universities. The students we deliver represent their future work force. This vested interest should translate into active involvement – not only at the point where students exit our institutions, but also ensuring that they’re able to enter them in the first place.

This is why the National Task team that Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology wants to establish to address the student funding challenge is so crucial – and should, at least include role players from all three sectors. 

Focus on social justice during Freedom Month

South Africans are currently celebrating our freedom, commemorating our departure from inequality and oppression.  

Maybe this Freedom Month – and particularly Freedom Day – is a time to reflect not only on what makes us free but on what binds us together. A time to build new relationships based on common needs and shared interests and values.  

We have moved away from oppression. We should now move towards greater co-operation and voluntary, mutually beneficial alliances in order to truly ensure access to education for all.

Because if we don’t, student protests will remain as consistent as seasonal flu, characterising the beginning of each academic year.

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