The beginning of the 2019 academic year has arrived; and while South African students were hoping for a smooth start to the year, we have seen disputes that had boiled up from the 2018 #FeesMustFall movement still haunting university hallways; some of them being prepared to use violence and intimidation to see that their demands are met.
Today marks the fifth day of nationwide university protests being conducted by members of SASCO following failed negotiations regarding fees, acceptance numbers and the availability of equipment such as laptops to students who could otherwise not afford them.
The concerns surrounding these protests are expected to delay the processes for the academic year of 2019 as they did last year; and as they did in previous protests, have been characterised by bouts of violence, interruptions, threats and a difference of opinion on which demands are viable to meet.
The case of affordable tertiary education is a sensitive one, and is only being made more prickly by expectations placed on universities to go over their capacity when accepting students from low-income backgrounds. These are only a few of the demands being made, however, let’s take a look at some of the others.
All Students are to Receive Laptops
For many students, having a laptop available during classes allows them to work more fluidly; and while it is true that a few faculties require access to digital material, most of them can be completed without them since students can take the approach of using pen and paper, like it has always been done.
SASCO, however, finds this unacceptable, arguing that students need electronic devices in order to complete their studies. As such, one of their demands to university management is that students from low-income backgrounds receive laptops at no cost to themselves, but rather at the expense of universities.
Students to Be Granted an Academic Allowance
Students who have enrolled in a tertiary education programme require stationary, textbooks and the like in order to engage with their learning material effectively, and so this demand does make sense in that context.
As such, SASCO has made a demand for students to be given an allowance through tertiary education institutions of R5000 to be put towards their text-books. They have placed this responsibility on UNISA in particular, who is expected to foot the bill, whereas the sale of textbooks and stationary to students had been a source of income for them in the past.
Continuing with #FeesMustFall
This year saw a price hike for university fees of 5.3%. This squeeze is mostly felt by students completing an honours degree, with many of them having had to drop out as a result.
It can be argued that the price-hike came as a response to recover funds lost in last year’s protest action, and would be used to fill gaps left by the need to fulfil demands made by SASCO in the first place, in 2018.
SASCO, on the other hand, argues that this is causing a divide between those who can afford tertiary schooling, and those who cannot; and they do, to some extent, have a point.
Still, cutting the 2019 price hike could well put UNISA and other tertiary education facilities at financial risk; which would have far worse societal and economic implications for the country as a whole.
A Smoother and More Transparent Registration Process
Anyone who has ever waited in a queue for registration at a university, or even those who have attempted to enrol online, can attest to the frustration, confusion and anxiety that comes with doing so. The system often does seem flawed. Previous academic results are often made available only after the deadlines for registration have passed, making it impossible for students to re-register in time.
As a result, a staggering number of students give up before they have even started; or worse still, students who have been actively engaged in studies find themselves unable to register for following academic years due to a failure of the registration system. The fact that these students have to pay for a registration process which doesn’t always work, also leaves a bad taste in students’ mouths.
SASCO’s response is to call for a less ambiguous registration process and are fully supported in this by COSATU, as they should be. An ambiguous and poorly managed registration process comes down to poor administration and little else; concerning this demand with service delivery where it is somewhat lacking. Furthermore, they also demand that the registration fee be wavered for students from low-income backgrounds.
Limitations Faced by Tertiary Institutions
Out of the six demands placed on UNISA in particular, only two have been able to be agreed upon during negotiations, with each side seeking to protect their own interests while settling the dispute amicably.
Meeting these demands isn’t a simple matter for universities, however, since it will affect their capacity, ability to fund further research and development, or to simply deliver high-quality lessons and learning materials to students.
Should they meet all of the demands laid down by SASCO, publically funded universities could put themselves at serious risk; however, if they do not, the implications for campus safety, their financial security and their ability to deliver education that competes on an international level, will also be completely undermined in time.
On the other hand, there is much left to be desired in the South African tertiary education sphere. Inequalities and poor administration are troubles that need to be dealt with; whether by the institutions themselves, through governmental intervention, or even through the efforts of privately owned organisations and institutions.
It’s a bit of a catch 22 scenario with the biggest losers being the students. Whether involved in the protest action or not, they are the ones being delayed, who put themselves at risk by going to class, when registering and enrolling. They are the ones who face the price-hikes, overcrowded classrooms and substandard education delivery.
If an agreement is not reached soon, we will see a repeat of 2018, albeit an amplified one…
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