President Zuma is facing the devil and the deep blue sea. Should he release the much awaited Heher Commission Report on Higher Education Fees and expect an outbreak of protests again or should he hold on to it and allow the mumblings of the sector to continue.

The solution of establishing a commission of inquiry was not the best one but it was the best that President Zuma had at his disposal. What else could he do than investigate the question of fees? 

The ANC had already decided in Mangaung that education up until undergraduate level will be free. Therefore, his party had spoken on the matter and therefore, at best, he was giving the sector the opportunity to present its proposals on fees and, at worst, he was biding time and giving universities the space to operate again.

Yet, that is exactly the problem, universities went back to business as usual. While the fees commission was President Zuma’s proposal, what did university management come up with? What did students do? They too went back to class and continued with business as usual. While they must be commended for turning the spotlight on the challenges of higher education, the space in which they did it was very different to the space and tactics employed by other stakeholders in higher education. 

Students operated in a dynamic, fluid and social movement space. Management, staff and government operate in a more formal and bureaucratic institutional system. Yet students expected a formal and bureaucratic process, the Commission of Inquiry, to be the answer to their dynamic and fluid approach. 

The student protests that we have seen happening in South Africa over the last three years highlights the failure of the liberal system. On the one hand, liberals want a state that is less intrusive in universities, as we have seen with university autonomy in the last two decades, but on the other hand expect the government to solve the universities’ problems when such arise as we have seen in response to the protests.

On the one hand, liberals in South Africa want the government to spend more money per gross domestic product on higher education but on the other hand they do not want an increase in government expenditure but a reduction of fiscal debt. Government must fund but universities want to dictate what their teaching and research outputs should be.  

Government should not formalise institutions such as the institutional forum, a mere consultative forum. Universities should be the fountains of the solutions of society’s problems but our universities often turn to government to solve its problems. 

If anything, the last three years have shown us that the higher education sector in South Africa is a very complex one. There are a myriad of complex issues surrounding education, the issue is not only limited to fees. 

There is an urgent need to address the above structural challenges. The question is how can these issues be addressed in a manner that ensures real changes are taking place at all levels from staff to students. For example, every student should perform community service, with no pay but with services such as transport provided, for at least two semesters during their course which will be compulsory credits towards their degree and see students object. In addition, consideration should be given to implementing a cap on the funding received by individual academics so that other academics may also have access to funding or assisted in receiving them.  Black students should be given options when selecting supervisors as well as the opportunity to work with Black supervisors who will genuinely invest in their growth  and/or mentor and groom them to be able to access opportunities. Often black students are at a disadvantage when applying for postgraduate studies as proposals need to be of a high standard. Thus, the importance of mentorship and invest in black students on the part of lecturers/supervisors  is critical.    

In addition to the above, universities should try and ensure suppliers of food outlets on campus are Black owned and subsidised by the university and ensure no student goes hungry. They should further institute as a rule that every university residence has a vegetable garden and that these are supplied to a student run market where food suppliers or students can purchase vegetables. Furthermore, strict recycling measures should be implemented with possible with incentives. In light of water restrictions and constant electricity price hikes, monthly rationing should be considered in for e.g. residences and departments. These measures are not to only cut costs but more importantly save our planet. 

There is a sense that students, staff and management do not want to change the very structures of our universities. Much like the structure of our country’s economy that often appears to reproduce structural challenges such as inequality and unemployment, so too do our universities. Students should not be the only ones mobilising and protesting against university processes. All academics should be involved in the issue and should be working together to address issues that are long overdue. Without a joint front, change is less likely to occur. 

While money for education is an important issue, the call for the decolonisation of our universities was never just about fees and access. The demand for the Heher Commission’s report which mainly focuses on fees and funding will not necessarily change the structures of our universities. Thus, our universities, staff, students and management need to work together in order to find real and meaningful solutions to the current education crisis. 

Avela Mjajubana is President of the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and NEC Member of SASCO 

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