Let's Think

Education crisis: campus unrest just the tip of iceberg

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The disruptions at institutions of higher education over the last few weeks in South Africa are just the tip of the iceberg of the much wider problem of brewing discontent in society let down by the ‘system’.

The real tragedy is that leading lights in society, and especially those in leadership positions, are dodging responsibility with overly simplistic responses and by playing the blame game.

And it starts right at the top. In this regard the last week’s Multi Stakeholder Forum on Universities at the Department of Higher Education and Training was a prime example.

President Jacob Zuma only made a token appearance at the event, imparted a few platitudes, implied the students have no real reason to protest, that he had instructed law enforcement agencies to arrest criminal elements who were hijacking protests, and left.

He was not there to listen to ‘stakeholders’, the supposed reason for the meeting and only succeeded in provoking a disruption of the meeting as student activists demanded his return.

The tone from Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande was in a similar vein, claiming the meeting was taking place “at a time when government has made substantial increases to the funds available for the higher education system. That is due to the direct and committed intervention of our President‚ for which we are very grateful indeed”.

Message that got lost

He did, however, also allude to the fact that the needs of an estimated four million young South Africans between the ages of 15 and 24, who are neither in education‚ employment nor training‚ have to be addressed as part of the mandate of our post-school education and training system.

On that very same day there was a small, but very telling, news item that received very little attention. The Legal Resources Centre (LRC)‚ acting on behalf of two schools in the Eastern Cape‚ has sent a final letter of demand to the province’s education department for delivery of textbooks.

In a statement the LRC noted that the failure to deliver textbooks meant the schools had experienced a “dire shortage of textbooks for the entirety of the school year thus far‚ and their chances of succeeding in their exams are being severely jeopardised”.

This is not an isolated situation. It is part of a much wider pattern. In June this year statistician-general Dr Pali Lehohla disclosed that 25% of pupils went the entire first quarter of 2015 without a full set of textbooks, a problem going back to 2012, when the government failed to buy critical learning materials for Limpopo pupils.

Lehohla reported “in this year (2015) only 74.9% of learners had access to textbooks in all their subjects in quarter one. This increased to 81.1% in quarter four”. This implies that just short of 20% of learners never received all their handbooks.

It is from this failing system that students arrive at post-school education institutions.

Small wonder then that when students come to university with high aspirations to improve their prospects, they also arrive with an anti-establishment attitude.

When ex-president Thabo Mbeki asserts, like he did last week, that when 30% of students with funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme dropped out of university – and more in their third year – the reason was mostly “because they were from poor backgrounds and did not have access to the type of schools that could properly equip them for university”, he was guilty of an oversimplification.

But he is not the only prominent South African to make himself guilty of oversimplification on the subject of the crisis in higher education.

We think

It is unclear why outgoing Public Protector Thuli Madonsela last week also found it necessary to join the chorus of those who now offer comments on the crisis in higher education, but she got it right when she said: “Our view is that the crisis that is unfolding in our higher education system constitutes a threat to our constitutional democracy and calls for the involvement of all stakeholders in meaningful engagement.”

But, to our mind, to just use catch-all phrases like ‘stakeholders’ and ‘meaningful engagement’, is not only an oversimplification, but symptomatic of a state of denial of the deep trouble South Africa’s socio-political construct finds itself in.

Our profound concern is that it will take a highly destructive crisis like a full-scale civil rebellion before leadership equal to the task of dealing with the structural challenges we face will come to the fore. 

by Piet Coetzer

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