Marc Ashton
4 minute read
19 Oct 2015
12:36 pm

Wits has made a mistake

Marc Ashton

2015 will without a doubt be remembered as the year in which student politics made headlines. The University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) Cecil John Rhodes statue fell over, the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) fees didn’t go up and the DA won Fort Hare University (sort of).

Wits University students protest at West Campus in Johannesburg, 14 October 2015, for the increasing of the upfront fee payments . Picture: Nigel Sibanda

People woke up on Saturday morning to the news that students at Wits had successfully lobbied for the suspension of increases going into 2016. There was much excitement on social media and in the newspapers that the students had been heard and Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib – to his credit – had displayed remarkable leadership during a crisis situation.

The short-term win is there but everybody seems to be missing the point. Fees were never the issue.

Students go to university because there is no work for them. It’s a generalisation perhaps, but the long and the short of it, is that if they are not at university, they are sitting around doing nothing. There is no labour market to absorb them. The moment they get spat out the other side, they are hardly more employable.

In doing some research for this column I started looking around and foundthis report from 2010, which showed that in the US 17.5% of office clerks, 17.4% of baggage porters/bellhops and 15.2% of taxi drivers had at least a bachelor’s degree.

That’s in an economy which has 6% to 8% unemployment.

In South Africa, that unemployment number is closer to 40% for people under 26. How’s that bachelor’s degree going to work out for you?

The role of Wits University is not institutionalisation – that is covered under the ambit of the Department of Correctional Services. The role of Wits is to provide skills needed to drive the country forward economically, politically and socially.

When Professor Habib arrived at Wits, he set a very clear goal of eclipsing the Cape universities in being recognised as one of the best in the world. He made some seriously good strides in this.

But the reality is that the university was already under financial strain – hence the increases – and once again he is being asked to do more with less.

By its silence, the Department of Education has egged on the students and put educators like Habib in an impossible situation.

Instead of focusing on the 10% increases, there should be clear plans on how to spend the R2 billion of unspent money sitting in the section education training authorities (SETAs) and creating a climate where business in South Africa doesn’t sit with R522 billion in unspent cash on their balance sheets.

Instead we allow protests to disrupt those who want to work or learn. We suspend a day of education to celebrate the fact that Wits fees have ‘fallen’ (ironically they haven’t because your taxes are going up and your cost of living goes up because we become less and less competitive with the rest of the world).

Habib and the Wits University management never had a choice – it’s the rule of the mob and so you take the only road open to you.

Here are some tips for radically changing the education environment in South Africa:

1. Read the Freemarket Foundation position paper on why education should not be compulsory in South Africa.

2. Lower the intake numbers for university. Stop selling universities as a viable way of getting into the job market – their ability to deliver critical skills is being handicapped by sheer volume of numbers. Kgosi Mampuru II Correctional Centre is already famous for institutionalisation – rather make Wits and the other universities famous for the students they produce.

3. Prioritise sorting out the SETAs and get real skills development happening.

4. Make business want to invest in South Africa. Pick a sector – they’re all crying out for skills that aren’t being created by universities.

5. Stop trying to write position papers and waxing lyrical about e-learning strategies. The stuff all exists and doesn’t need government intervention. Look at the model that WeThinkCode and École 42 have rolled out locally and internationally.

6. Why does UCT, its Graduate School of Business and Wits now use the likes of GetSmarter to deliver their courses – almost all of which don’t carry accreditation? The answer is because they need to deliver critical skills and the bricks and mortar varsities are being positioned to serve the lowest common denominator.

The role of a university is not to sell hope; leave that to the Curros and AdvTechs of the world.

A university is supposed to deliver critical skills into the economy and ensure that we remain competitive.

As long as we keep politicising education rather than democratising it, the students are ultimately the losers in the long-run.

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