Student fees: been there, done that
According to news reports, students at South African universities have been protesting against proposed fee increases. Tuition fee protests shut down 2 of SA’s biggest universities:
South Africa’s biggest universities have been affected by student protests over rising tuition fees that have spread from Wits to the University of Cape Town (UCT) and Rhodes University.
A handful of protesters gathered at UCT in protest against a proposed increase in tuition on Monday 19 October 2015. Picture: Lauren Isaacs/EWN.
Lectures at Wits and Rhodes have since been suspended.
Students at Rhodes University have this morning blocked all entrances to the university.
The students have my sympathy.
When I was studying for a BA at the University of Natal, Pietermaritzburg, I worked for two years as a bus conductor in Johannesburg to save up enough money to pay the fees. But it wasn’t eno0ugh for a three-year degree course. I worked in the Christmas (summer) vacations as well, but it still wasn’t enough. My mother helped me, and paid about half of it.
About 10 years later I became interested in family history, and, having done two years of history for my BA degree, I registered for a third year with the University of South Africa, (Unisa) and so converted History into a full major subject. That qualified me to register for an Honours course witjh Unisa, which being a distance-education university, was cheaper than the residential ones. The History Honours course consisted of five papers, and I got through the first two OK, but in order to complete the last three, I had to do them all in one year. And in that year the fees were increased, putting the three Honours papers out of reach, since I had neither the time nor the money to complete them.
But Unisa also offered a Bachelor of Theology (BTh) degree, and at that time, instead of being divided into 10 courses, it was divided into 30 modules, which were much cheaper than full year courses and honours papers. So I took some modules there, since they were affordable, and ended up with a second Bachelor’s degree.
Then I went to work for Unisa, and, with the help of a staff discount, I was able to go back and finish the BA Honours in History, and then do a Masters and Doctorate in Theology.
The point of this story is that most of this would not have been possible without the staff discount. I had to give up the History Honours degree until I got a staff discount, and would never even have considered the Masters and Doctoral studies without it. And that was at a “cheap” distance-education university.
So when I see students today protesting against proposed fee increases, I understand where they are coming from.
In line with the privatisation mania that has swept the world for the last 30 years, government subsidies for tertiary education have tended to remain static, or even decrease, and universities have tended to run on a business rather than an academic model.
But when Singapore became independent, it realised that the only asset it had was its people. As a small island nation, it had no minerals or agricultural products worth speaking of. So it invested in the education of its people, to develop a knowledgeable and skilled population, and South Africa needs to do the same. Yes, we have more minerals and agricultural produce that we can export (so why are we now importing poultry?) but it would be better to have skilled people so we can export them as finished products rather than raw materials. The government really should review its policy for subsidising tertiary education, and make it more affordable for students. There might, of course, be less available for bribes and kickbacks, but why make students subsidise those?