Do you agree that another 0% fee increase will be the beginning of the end?
What happens in the next week or two could determine whether your children and grandchildren will have respectable universities to go to in the future, or any university at all. The minister of higher education is expected to announce next year's fee increase that will apply to all 26 public universities. In the heat of the student protests last year, President Jacob Zuma announced a 0% fee increase for this year and since then no university has dared to declare their fee structures for next year for fear of unleashing more student protests that will unhinge the rest of the academic year. The public universities are in serious crisis, and the public served by these institutions had better take note. If, as widely expected, the minister announces a fee increase of between 6% and 8% — far below the actual expenditure of each university — these institutions will hobble their way into the 2017 academic year. If, as also expected, students protest in response to the announcement and, as some promised, "shut down the universities" and "make 2017 a gap year", then it is over. As one vice-chancellor put it: "We might well have universal access to poor-quality higher education." Student leaders speak for students. Unions speak for workers. Staff associations speak for academics. But, asked another vice-chancellor: "Who speaks for the university?" While some student groups have threatened Armageddon upon our universities, I cannot recall the public taking a stand against the destruction of these increasingly fragile national assets. Institutions that were built up over decades, sometimes over a century, are crumbling before our eyes without a whimper from the public. You are much more likely to see anxious public reaction to mountain fires threatening homes on the False Bay coastline than to get any response to the imminent demise of our universities. A university is not a company or a house which can be rebuilt in months. Maybe it is because the general citizenry does not grasp the indispensable role of a university in public life. It is, after all, the premier site for the production of high-level expertise for a 21st-century economy; it is the prized arena for producing well-equipped leaders across all sectors of society from business and industry to education and the media to medicine and law; it is the place from which a first-generation student emerging with a degree can change the fate of families and communities; it is where future leaders learn (or should learn) the habits of democracy; and it is the engine of development in a competitive world, the pride of a nation, the guarantor of future wealth and wellbeing, and of civilisation itself. When a country loses its universities, it loses self-respect. This does not mean that there are no buildings collectively called "the university". I once posed the question: "When does a university cease to exist?" You can have buildings and students and lecturers and timetables; but that does not make a place of higher learning. If there is no money to pay staff or upgrade facilities or hire the best professors or invest in research and development or generate innovations in quality teaching, then the mere shuffling around of people inside buildings hardly counts as a university. While a building with a sign that says "university" might signal ambitious intent, it fails to exist under conditions of under-resourcing by the government, the unplanned massification of the student body and chronic instability that so often destroys the facilities required for teaching and learning. How do we address the immediate crisis? Three things can and must be done. One, there must be free education for the poor. Two, the middle classes must pay for their own education. And three, the government must ensure that whatever scheme it devises to fund indigent students, including the so-called "missing middle", it must be sustainable — such as recouping investments in low-interest student loans through an efficient revenue collection system when the graduate obtains a job. Simple, right? True, but not when you ask politicians to do the job. All I know is that another 0% fee increase will mean the beginning of the end for public universities worthy of that name in South Africa. As the silent public watching this coming train wreck, you cannot say that you were not warned. - Prof JJ in The Times