Reality, Not Emotion, Should Take Precedence In Higher Education Debate
My good friend and fellow University of Pretoria student Curtis Richardson recently wrote a piece on his An Uncommon Place for Thought blog titled “Free Education in our Lifetime: What’s the Fuss?” It is part one of a series he intends to write on the topic, which I look forward to reading. I recommend reading or getting a context of the original article before proceeding with reading my post, to avoid confusion.
With this post I hope to do a statement-by-statement reply to his post to highlight some of the points of disagreement between the advocates and detractors of free higher education, and, more generally, those who believe in social justice, and those who believe in individual justice. Curtis does restate some of his points, so I won’t be addressing a statement if I have already addressed something similar.
“If we are going to inspect the opportunity for free education we must first assess why a university is important in the first place. As an institution, the university plays a central role in building the very makeup of a country as a culture and environment. Its role is to provide the continuation of society’s most valuable gift to its citizens, education.”
This first point by Curtis which I disagree with highlights a notable divergence in our approach to this issue.
The role of the university is overstated here, and some underlying realities are not being considered.
Attending university, for many – including myself – is a necessity. It is not, for most of us, about getting an education or immersing oneself in a millennia’ worth of knowledge. The advent of the internet has put this on our desktops at home and in our cellphones in our pockets. ‘Free education’ has already become a reality. But ‘free statutorily-mandated qualifications’, unfortunately, have not become a reality.
The university – and, I must note, I am referring only to public universities given the negligible presence of private universities in South Africa – is an institution where the State (not society) imposes itself on the career aspirations of millions of individuals. I cannot, legally, practice law, without having spent at least four years at university. But I do not complain, because I know the students in the engineering, scientific, actuarial, and accounting departments have it much worse. That is not even to mention the medical students. We need the degree before we all move on to doing other (mandatory) courses, writing admissions exams, and getting accredited. Without the degree, we can move no further.
So while the university does provide knowledge, it is hardly a “gift to [the] citizens”. It is also no longer the prime medium for dispensing knowledge. The internet has already contributed to, and will continue to contribute to, the redundancy of the university. The citizens are there because they have no choice. The State wants to have a continuous strangle-hold on all professions, and the university is the first step in this authoritarian process.
“Hence, when we discuss the tertiary institution, it must be in light of the fact that its primary role is to refine the knowledge and skill of an individual, and not work as a basis for determining the capacity of anyone.”
This would certainly have been the ideal situation, but it is not the reality. The university, indeed, determines the capacity of aspiring professionals. No degree; no accreditation; no job. This is, at present, at least, the primary function of the university. It can only be reversed if the university becomes a truly voluntary space whereby the State does not extort tens of thousands of rands from the citizens, just in order for them to be able to say “hi, I know the law.”
“A university is the peak of intellectual environments outside snooty cafe’s. An institution built upon thinking for thinking[‘]s sake, its primary role in society is to research, discover, and study the complexities of human existence and hand over the findings to a new generation, for the process to be repeated.”
Having read many ‘the role of university’ essays during my time at the University of Pretoria, which were always clothed in airy-fairy specialized language about how the university is a place to do and think everything that Curtis mentions, I can’t help but feel I am one of the few who notice that this is not the reality.
A recent, unnamed and unidentified person (I leave it up to the imagination of the viewer) said, to a large audience in an institution which may be the subject of this article, that (to paraphrase) if someone in the audience believes X, then that person in the audience needs to have a serious conversation with the unnamed person. While I may not be able to convey the tone, expression, and climate which was evident in this article, it suffices for me to say that the impression was created that if you believe X, you are wrong. How dare you believe X?
In a situation I can speak more freely about, the University of Pretoria’s Student Representative Council has unilaterally declared ‘solidarity’ with students who were last year arrested for unlawful activities as part of the FeesMustFall protests. I am sorry, but what? When I voted for the SRC, this kind of behavior was not included in the mandate. None of the candidates said they would do such a thing. Yet, here we are. Based on other statements by the SRC, it is evident that there is a ‘rightthink’ and a ‘wrongthink’ at the University of Pretoria. And from what I’ve heard, this is how it is at other campuses as well, including the University of Cape Town, Rhodes, and Wits.
The modern South African university is indeed a place to research, discover, and study, but only if that falls within the currently-accepted ambit of ‘what is acceptable’. This, in my view, completely defeats the point.
“That is why it seems a tediously pointless objective to create a non-elitist university, when its primary role as an institution is to to do that very thing.”
While I think Curtis and I are in agreement here, I think it is important to criticize the current state of affairs whereby ‘elite’ is by default a bad or harmful concept. The SRC of the University of Pretoria, for example, recently said that ‘the elite’ must fund higher education. Embedded in this – besides a very unfortunate basic economic illiteracy – is the notion that the elite ‘owe’ something to ‘the rest’. But as those of us with a basic understanding of economics know that the elite can usually only be elite if they have already created some or other kind of value for society. Cronyists, i.e. people who become rich by using the force of the State, are not ‘elite’. They are not superior in skill or quality. The true elite are those people who have worked for what they have – in a fortunate combination of hard work, smart work, and circumstance.
With that being said, I must also note that South African universities are not exclusionary. Each field of study has its own admission requirements which are, more often than not, aligned with the relative complexity of that subject, as well as the demand for that subject. For instance, I did not qualify for anything in the natural sciences and very few degrees in commerce, because I have simply never excelled in fields like mathematics.
South African universities have also completely departed from the Apartheid racial context. Studies have indicated for several consecutive years in a row that many, many more black students have been admitted to universities than white students. I believe the trendy tyrants of the Fees Must Fall & Co. movement have realized this, and have now shifted their focus to ‘curriculum Transformation’, which is a topic which necessitates its own full article.
“South Africa’s unemployment rate remains breathtakingly high, especially amongst youth, and even after 20 years of mostly concerted efforts to transform the economy, a large majority remain locked out of formal work.”
This is true, but let’s not treat being ‘locked out of formal work’ as an abstract idea.
As mentioned above, before I could work, I had to spend four years (of unemployment) at a university to get a piece of paper which authorizes me to begin the process of becoming a lawyer. Read that again: the paper doesn’t authorize me to become a lawyer. It’s only the first piece of paper. Now I need to continue the process, write other tests, spend thousands of rands more in getting accredited, before I can actually start working. But that’s not the end of the story. I am not allowed to be creative in how I advertise my legal services. I am not allowed to compare my services with the services of other lawyers. The list goes on. And even then, the legal profession is not the most regulated profession in the country.
The government is now officially considering a national minimum wage. As I have already written, and as one of my colleagues at Being Libertarian has written, the minimum wage is essentially a certificate of perpetual unemployment. Furthermore, the government is also considering the introduction of a carbon tax, as well as a sugar tax.
There are no abstract forces keeping persons out of employment. There is a single institution whose fingerprints are all over the unemployment in South Africa, and that is the State. Every time a politician says “we need to create jobs”, he is in fact saying “we’re going to do something which will cost the economy more jobs”. Unless and until the political class, and indeed the trendy tyrants on our university campuses, realize that the private sector – not the State – creates jobs and drives economic growth, unemployment will not be solved.
“The answer to that is the university. Able to equip poor South Africans with the much needed skills and expertise that would see them propel to the heights that they deserve, the university is seen as the shortest way out of poverty in South Africa, beyond becoming a politician.”
The answer is only “the university”, because, as I have explained, the State makes it the answer. It is not the natural, or appropriate answer. But in light of having a busybody and interventionist State, the university is the answer for access to formal work.
The better answer would be for the government to remove itself as a barrier to entry in the market. This will not only benefit those seeking formal work, which require advanced or specialized knowledge, but will benefit those seeking informal work even more.
“Bursaries are a great way for students with no financial means to gain access to education, almost always for free. Unfortunately, there are not enough bursaries available to provide for the massive amount of students that would like to study every year.”
As the burden of the interventionist State becomes larger, the private charity of society becomes smaller. The fact that we have too few private bursaries in South Africa should come as no surprise in the face of the State taking every chance it gets to undermine and intimidate the private sector. The lack of growth in our economy has corresponded directly with the level of government intervention in the economy.
Making education ‘free’ – thereby further increasing the size of the interventionist State – is clearly not the answer to this particular problem. Increasing the amount of NSFAS grants has a similar effect. The only sustainable and appropriate solution is to reduce the massive burden of complying with the State’s decrees in the economy.
“It is for this exact reason the government birthed the National Student Financial Aid scheme…”
I believe it was Leon Louw who wrote in his acclaimed South Africa: The Solution that every time government intervention in the economy fails, the government responds by proposing yet another intervention to fix the prior one. This continues until the economy collapses entirely or until the society in question realizes the grave mistake in their political culture. I believe economic theorists have mirrored this view for centuries.
Curtis then concludes his article by pointing out how NSFAS funds have gone ‘missing’ and how the fund has been utterly abused by the State. This then leads to the students demanding free education – because of NSFAS’ inadequacy.
This line of thought leads me to my conclusion, highlighting the terrible, illogical basis upon which Fees Must Fall rests.
The Apartheid government, a markedly authoritarian, paternalistic entity, did not condone private education. The few English private schools in Natal and sometimes in the Cape Province were always on ‘thin ice’ with the government, having to sculpt their curriculum in such a manner that would guarantee their mere survival. The government also did not condone any kind of higher educational independence. All 20 of South Africa’s substantively large universities are public – state owned – universities. Naturally, the Apartheid government did not care too much for the majority of South Africa’s citizens and built enough universities for the white minority. The homeland governments – with subsidies from the Apartheid state – built universities for blacks. At no stage was the private sector allowed to take the lead. They can build the universities, yes, but own and direct them? No.
In 1994 we transitioned to a more or less centrist government, which, unfortunately, had a tradition in the left (like the Apartheid government). None of South Africa’s large public universities were privatized.
Building on the tradition of its predecessor, the new government went full steam ahead with regulation, and threats of nationalization and expropriation. (Aside: the GEAR economic program gave South Africa a few good years of economic growth and a hopeful future, but it was quickly dismissed as ‘neoliberal’ and shelved.) Higher education, predictably, became or remained expensive, coupled with the fact that the government itself was not building any new universities, or allowing the private sector to do so with ease.
Come 2015, and leftist students are upset that higher education is expensive. With the lack of competition in the higher education market and an absolute monopoly held by the Department of Higher Education, this was predictable, and was always a certainty in South Africa’s future.
But the students are not asking for a competitive market in education. No. Some even complain that they don’t want to be ‘clients’ of their universities. Instead they seek a kind of communitarian arrangement whereby the university is no longer a service provider, but a community servant. This and each and every one of their requests, their demands, and now, even their mere behavior, has led and will continue to lead to increasing government control over education in South Africa.
Indeed, when higher education becomes ‘free’, and the State becomes the single payer of education for all citizens, the absolute monopoly would be strengthened and practically unbreakable. University fees will not increase, but taxes will, and the quality of the education in question will begin to fall (as we have seen with every – and I mean every.single – state-owned enterprise), thus resulting in a situation that is worse than where we started. The trendy tyrants are not calling for a solution to their problem, but are calling for an exasperation of the problem. Their lack of basic economic understanding will lead directly to the opposite of what they ostensibly want, happening.