TO THE rational mind, the new surge in student protests makes no sense.
The minister’s announcement actually provides unprecedented levels of financial assistance to the children of the poor and to the so-called missing middle, those students too well-off to qualify for government bursaries but too poor to fund their own studies.
All university leaders, and any number of analysts, greeted this official statement with relief. Not the protesting students, they want free education, period, and so the disruptions, the intimidation, the violence start all over again as this group of activists relish their newfound power – they can actually shut down a university.
The public has many other pressing issues that holds their attention, like the deaths of Kwaito star Mandoza and veteran journalist Allister Sparks, or the Brangelina divorce. By not paying attention to what might well be the final screw in the coffin of higher education, a minority of students are trashing higher education for the poor and the destiny of our best universities. Let’s take a closer look.
One research publication after the other has shown that across-the-board free education only benefits one group in society – the middle classes and the wealthy. Or to put this in even more stark terms, the free education mantra of the protesters would actually widen the gap between the rich and the poor, meaning even greater inequality in a society with arguably the highest Gini-coefficient in the world.
But nothing to worry about, we are in an era of post-truth politics, as one commentator called it. In this age of politics as theatre, it really does not matter if the lines between fact and fiction become blurred in the spectacle of public performance.
The media so easily claims that “the students” shut down the campuses. Look carefully, it is actually a very small minority of the students of campuses with more than 20000 and often 30 or 40000 students. So who are “the students”? A fraction of enrolments, a spectacularly noisy few whose contribution to our future is based on media soundbites rather than incisive analysis.
Even more disturbing, a sizeable portion of “the students” are not students at all, but everything from gangsters to anarchists who have no connection to higher education.
Which raises the question: how can such a small minority determine the future of the silent majority? They cannot, in fact, do that without massive intimidation and the constant threat of violence.
That is why they storm classes, threaten staff and students, and frogmarch those who want to learn towards a central protesting space. The minority needs a crowd for the media spectacle otherwise the protesting group looks disappointingly thin.
I bet you that if a campus-wide referendum was held to ask whether classes should be shut down, a majority would say “no” showing up the fact that universities are held ransom by a noisy minority.
But take a closer look at “the students”. It is led, in most cases, by middle class students. These are young people who can afford a shutdown. They are relatively privileged and come from good schools.
With their social capital they can make up lost time and cram successfully for year-end examinations. The students whose lives they are busy destroying are the very people they claim to speak for – the poorest of the poor.
These are vulnerable students who form part of that majority who drop out or who struggle to finish a three-year degree within six years. It is the poor student from Thaba Nchu or Orange Farm or Thohoyandou or Mount Frere or Manenberg. For this student, every hour of classes matters and extra tutorials in a struggling subject matters. The disruption of a day or two or, heaven forbid, a week, could end his or her academic prospects for the year effectively making them part of that the millions of NEETs – young people Not in Education, Employment or Training.
The fact that these protests happen on the eve of the final examinations could not have been more poorly timed for these students. But who cares?
The minority of protesters can live out their dreams of a self-declared revolution with disregard for these harsh, lived realities of the majority of students.
What the minister has announced in an economy that is not growing and in a society that remains dangerously unequal, is to offer relief to the children of the poor and place, rightly so, a contributing obligation on families who can afford to pay for their children’s studies.
Professor Jonathan Jansen is the former vice chancellor of the University of the Free State, currently a resident fellow at Stanford University, US