Kathy Gibson reports from SATNAC in George – Universities today are in a state of crisis, and new models will be needed if we are to address the relevant issues.
Professor Andrew Leitch, deputy vice-chancellor of Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, points out that universities are microcosms of society, representing different spheres of society.
“One cannot imaging a successful economy without a robust university system,” he says.
In 2015, the #rhodesmustfal movement escalated within a few months into the $feesmustfall demonstrations around the country.
Prof Leitch explains that the demands from students break down into two areas, both relating to financial issues and both speaking to social justice.
The first is for debt relief for existing students, which Leitch says has reached breaking point.
The other is for financial support to allow new students access to university. Currently, about two-thirds of the cost of a degree is paid from the Department if Higher Education, with the remaining one third in fees that someone has to pay.
“However, over the past 20 years, the government subsidy has decline in real terms by about 1,35% per year,” Leitch says. “Accumulate that over 20 years, you begin to feel the crunch. So universities are forced to increase student fees. To compound this, enrolment has approximately doubled.”
While the NSFAS provides assistance to students whose family income is less that R120 000, this leaves the “missing middle” of students whose families earn more than this threshold, but still can’t afford university fees.
There have also been demands for the decolonisation of the institutions, Leitch points out. “This touches on what we teach; how we teach it; and its relevance for South Africa and the region.”
In some instances, Leitch believes some student have gone too far in their protests, having destroyed artworks and infrastructure, resulting in many millions of rands of damage and necessitating the employment of additional security. It is also taking its toll on the senior leadership of universities.
“On the positive side, I believe they have brought benefits,” he says. “It is clear that the system is underfunded and this has been exposed for all
“It has also revealed that the ‘born frees’ are not unsympathetic to the inequalities that remain in the country, and we have been forced to consider issues of social justice.”
In addition, universities are learning to embrace uncertainty as a sector. “Are we, as the higher education sector, prepared for today’s students?” Leitch asks.
In light of the student concerns, Leitch believes a more sustainable funding model is needed. “Currently, 0,71% of GDP goes to higher education, a low figure compared not only to developed countries, but also to other countries in Africa. While government has committed to raising this to 1%, it is battling to find the funding.
“We believe in affordable education for all,” Leitch adds. “For those who cannot afford it, support must be in place. And this will need support from the business sector as well.
“The challenges facing education in South Africa are significant and we need to find new solutions. Universities also have to examine their roles in our young democracy and their relevance.”