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Innovative solutions needed to defuse a ticking time bomb at Mzansi’s tertiary institutions

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Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

By Hendrick Makaneta

Higher education transformation continues to be subjected to one form of contestation or another from a range of internal and external forces. It is almost 30 years since the national commission on higher education was mandated to look at ways to improve the higher education landscape with a view to ensure that students who come from historically marginalised communities are also able to study in a conducive environment that can enable them to compete with the best in the world.

Although most institutions that were previously reserved for the elite now boast of high numbers of black students, the reality is that more still needs to be done to ensure that students can access institutions of higher learning with a view to succeed.

Although the problem of funding has been addressed through government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), thus giving hundreds of thousands of students access to universities, the issue of failure rates often erodes the good intentions of the scheme as many students have dropped out of the system without obtaining a qualification. Researchers have revealed that out of 12 students who enrol for a university degree, only five go out with a qualification and for us as activists in the terrain of education, this is a cause for great concern.

There is no doubt that funding alone is not enough to get the student through the academic years. Students need psycho-social support as well. The demand that is presented by the academic work at university requires multiple sources of support for students.

The recent announcement of the accommodation cap by NSFAS has made things worse, especially for students who study in historically white institutions where the cost of accommodation is high. It is not surprising that the government has reduced its allocation for accommodation through NSFAS despite the rising number of students. Undoubtedly the reduction of allocations in higher education institutions also mean that there will be students who cannot find proper accommodation within a reasonable radius of less than 40km from universities such as Wits, Stellenbosch or UCT and this means that a conducive environment for learning is negatively affected as some of the affected students cannot find a place to stay.

The NSFAS cap, along with academic and financial exclusions which occur every year, means that student protests will be a response from the frustrated students.

We have a crisis in higher education institutions and if it is not resolved sooner rather than later, we could be sitting on a ticking time bomb. What makes matters worse is the inability of our professors to be proactive. It is now common cause that every year we will experience protests by students especially at Wits University. I am aware that the vice-chancellor has called on students to come back to the table, but my view is that if the university wants to negotiate in good faith, they must consider bringing all the student leaders back to campus. Students should not agree to enter negotiations with the institution unless all their student leaders are present. There is no doubt that the SRC was elected legitimately by the students and any attempt to sideline some within the student leadership should be rejected from the onset.

University managers should learn to engage with students and not isolate them on the basis that they lack the higher order thinking skills possessed by professors.

There is no doubt that government has failed to address the historic debt situation facing most universities. The Motsepe Foundation has led by example when they made a huge donation of R30 million to students in the past two weeks. The other players in the private sector should emulate the Motsepe Foundation by also lending a hand of support.

Most universities also have reserves in the form of investments made over a period of time. In this time of greater need, universities should also tap into their investments and assist to scrap the student debt.

What is needed is the will by university managers to eradicate student debt once and for all. One way of encouraging our managers to scrap student debt, is that they (the universities) should not see student debt as a burden on their shoulders but rather as an investment which will yield returns in the future. These students will graduate and be able to make a meaningful contribution to the economy of our country someday.

Another proposal that we have made is that the skills development levy should be amended with a view to increase it by 1%. Thereafter, the 1% can be ring-fenced and the money can be used to assist students who are struggling with debt in the terrain. We really need a multi-dimensional approach to deal with the issue of student debt which the single biggest cause of unrest.

*Hendrick Makaneta is an education activist completing an LLB degree at the University of Pretoria.