Any parent and citizen with the welfare of our country at heart should be concerned about the spate of protests and violence currently engulfing some of our universities. Granted, it is not all our tertiary institutions that have seen stones and stun grenades flying this past week – and we must commend those students who have so far exercised restraint.
But even at those campuses where we saw protests and vandalism, it is not all the students who were involved. There are some students who want to go on with the academic programme. Some are in their final year and may be looking forward to the breakthrough that graduation would possibly grant them and their families.
In a rights-based society, do they not have the right to continue with their studies? These are some of the issues parents and society must start raising. The students’ struggle for free education is a noble one but it’s moral high ground is lost when activists engage in criminal acts such as the destruction of university property and intimidate students who want to go to class.
I sympathize with the youngster from a poor family who is apprehensive about the disruption to the academic programme and how his or her dreams (and probably those of his or her parents and siblings) may have to be deferred if this academic year is lost. And this is where I sometimes question the logic of the tactics and strategies employed by the aggrieved in our society.
Coupled with this is the whole issue of the destruction of university property, which I have raised in a previous column. I have yet to be convinced how such destruction advances the students’ cause.
In fact, given the month we are in, I’d argue that universities are part of our collective heritage. When we destroy them, we are disadvantaging current and future generations of students.
The consequences are likely to be felt more by children of the working class whose only access to information and knowledge remains the public education system.
Children of the economically elite can access information and knowledge through strong parental networks and the wonders of digital and online platforms.
My fear is that with what is going on at our public universities, we may see more private and international universities setting up locally to cater for children of the economically elite.
The latter would no doubt vote with their pockets, for which parent who can afford it would send his or her child to a university whose library has been burnt down and where the academic year gets continually disrupted?
Unfortunately, these institutions would be expensive, well-resourced and attract the best academics thus perpetuating inequalities in our society.
As we grapple for solutions, my appeal is that we consider the unintended consequences of our actions and we preserve what we have.
The interim solution offered by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande while the Fees Commission carries on with its work; expected to be completed by June next year, is a good place to start. Does it offer a permanent solution? No, it doesn’t.
But there is something progressive in committing to continue providing National Student Financial Aid Scheme bursaries to academically deserving students who come from poor family backgrounds, and ensuring students who come from households with a combined income of less than R 600 000 per year would face no fee increases next year.
I appeal to students to engage with the proposal on the table.
But we must accept the fact that a solution requires more than just the co-operation of students. Parents must make their voices heard. I am particularly worried about middle-class parents who can afford fees not saying so but going along with their children’s demand for free education. These extractive tendencies by middle-class parents are not helping the situation.
Business, religious leaders and civil society must weigh in on the matter through the appropriate channels such as the Fees Commission. It cannot be the responsibility of the government alone to find a solution.
Finally, the government must do more to communicate the fiscal constraints we face and the tough choices we have to make.
Currently, one does not get the sense that citizens are informed about how the Budget works. If this continues unaddressed, there will continue to be a dichotomy between citizens’ expectations and what the fiscus can afford.
Pastor Ray McCauley is the president of Rhema Family Churches and co-chairman of the National Religious Leaders Council.