Five Unfair Burdens On Our Universities


Some of the biggest news items of the past two years have involved our country’s universities. Our institutions of higher learning have become the battlegrounds for fights where often the universities are not at fault. Here is a look at five unfair burdens that are placed on our 25 public universities:

1. Unreasonable And Increasing State Intervention

In many respects, the South African government of today tends to intervene in university affairs more often than our Apartheid government ever did.

This intervention has various forms and takes place on numerous levels at our universities. This interventionism pertains to admission policies, curricula and appointment rules of the institution which do not need state intervention, as it might prove to be detrimental to academic freedom in a country where political-ideological propaganda often masquerades as teaching and scholarship.

It has to be mentioned that although universities all over the world are often extremely political places, that it is because of freedom – and not because of government involvement that it is so.

See: What #FeesMustFall Has Taught Us About South Africa by Grant Penny

2. Yet, Universities Are Abandoned When Problems Arise

Despite some heavy involvement in certain functional and ideological aspects of universities, as soon as things go pear-shaped the Department of Higher Education and government go missing.

Nobody needs any reminding how the Minister of Higher Education went full-on ‘see-no-evil-hear-no-evil’ when students across the country closed university campuses with the #FeesMustFall protests. Not only are universities left to deal with these protests, but there is a massive social responsibility that is already placed on our institutions of higher learning. Universities get the full brunt of the social issues that the government does not adequately handle or solve. Universities are seen by government as a mechanism to engage with contemporary issues. Although there is a causal link between investment in higher education and direct economic outcomes, one must be careful to not expect solutions from universities which they are not equipped to achieve.

Universities should be seen as the unique contribution that they are able to make in terms of education and innovation.

See: Dear Blade by Nicholas Babaya

3. Universities Are Not Banks

As seen with the #FeesMustFall protests, many people have an ill-conceived idea about tertiary education institutions and their apparent financial power.

With the crisis that is facing student finances across the country, many were appalled and angry at the fact that universities were unable to succumb to the wishes of the #FMF protesters. Let us make two things clear, though: Firstly, universities do not have millions of rands that are just waiting to be spent and is more than enough to provide for free tertiary education. Secondly, universities do not have the conferred power to decide whether or not South Africa or their own campuses could provide for free education. This is a decision that needs to be made by government – the same government that shies away when the going gets tough.

See: Reality, Not Emotion, Should Take Precedence In Higher Education Debate by Martin van Staden

4. Decreasing Funding Without Freedom To Become More Self-Regulated

During the past 20 years, the government has gotten more and more involved with pushing agendas, and less and less involved in funding universities – all without giving more autonomy in return. The massification of higher education has led to more universities having to deal with more than double the number of students since 1994. And, all the while, funding has dropped from R20,187 per student in 1994 to only R16,764 per student in 2014.

Regardless of one’s personal opinion regarding the privatisation of universities in South Africa, it seems abundantly clear that it is by no means fair to decrease spending while expecting bigger and better results.

5. Universities Are Asked To Be Main Economic Drivers

We have all heard it before. We expect our universities to repay government investment through innovation and knowledge development that stimulates economic growth.

At first glance, this all seems fair. One of the main functions of universities is arguably to help enhance our economic future.

The trouble, however, is that this becomes ever more difficult when government itself does not create conducive circumstances for economic growth. When our basic education system leaves much to be desired; when our labour regulations keep job creation low; and when our politicians frighten foreign investment away, you cannot reasonably expect our 26 universities to be the be-all-and-end-all solution to our economic woes.