Nicola’s Notes: Mind the education gap

This week has seen violence erupt again on campuses across the country as students continue to demand free tertiary education. At my alma mater – Wits – rocks were thrown by students, and thrown back by security guards. Students were arrested. Other students – and innocent motorists – were intimidated.

The #FeesMustFall protest has taken on a life of its own, and Wits decided to shut its doors for the rest of the week.

Nicola Mawson, IOL Business Editor. Picture: Matthews Baloyi. Credit: INDEPENDENT MEDIA

Just before exam time.

A lot has been said about these protests. Some have suggested they are no longer only about the cost of tertiary education. Others have said they are symptomatic of the anger South Africans feel in general, but have no real way of showing.

It strikes me that the protests have gone beyond frustrations over the price of a university education, and what is at stake is much more important – and perhaps more fragile: The future our young people see, or don’t see, for themselves.

It’s tough out there. There’s no doubting that. Everything costs more. Salaries just don’t stretch. Ends don’t meet. Debt is rising.

SA will be lucky to actually grow its economy this year (predictions are for zero to very little growth).

We are doing a dastardly tango with a potential ratings downgrade in December; even if Moody’s is happier with us, there’s still S&P and Fitch to consider.

This is the country we are leaving for future generations to inherit.

Education has, in so many studies, been proven to boost someone’s chances of getting a job and stepping up on the economic ladder. It’s seen as a vital key to break through the cycle of poverty.

Earlier this year, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said education was the key to economic development and to ensuring all sectors of society benefit from it.

Education is a right, and not a privilege.

The funding dilemma

But, and this is a rather large but, the question is how to pay for it. I don’t believe it can be free: we have costs to cover, and free education implies shoddy education.

I’ve experienced this first-hand. Many years ago, my family fell on rather tough times. My dad was retrenched, the hardware store he’d invested in wasn’t all that, the bank took the house back, the car was sold to pay debt, and we were eating food donated by the church.

First year was mostly paid for by my dad, before things went pear-shaped. A kind and anonymous donor (thank you – whoever you are) donated a wad of cash towards my studies, and I worked, too.

I worked as many as three part-time jobs simultaneously. I worked until gone midnight on many nights, and went to class for a 7.30am lecture. I eventually went into a full-time sales position and swapped copies of cases (I was doing a BA Law degree) for class notes.

It took me six years to crack that three-year degree. But, I did it.

Although our situation later improved, I still wouldn’t wish that on anyone. Driving for Mr Delivery in a car that literally falls apart on you isn’t fun.

I suppose you could say we fell into the missing middle. Frankly, we fell into the level below that. I didn’t qualify for financial aid because my dad was bringing something home, even if it wasn’t enough to cover what needed to be covered.

Not one of the umpteen bursaries I applied for even wrote back with so much as a “thank you for trying”. And you really cannot qualify for finance when you have bugger all as security.

That’s the position many of SA’s young people find themselves in.

I guess my little person is fortunate because, no matter what, I invest in an education fund for her every month. Not everyone has that – erm – luxury.

I invest because I don’t want to watch her go through what I did. I don’t want to watch any of our youth go through that either. It’s soul-destroying.

Any solutions?

We’ve had about a year to come up with some sort of solution. A new financing model.

Instead, we have government decreeing that increases in fees much be capped at eight percent, and that students benefiting from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and the "missing middle" will not be affected by the increase, as they will be subsidised by government.

That still leaves students trying to find R36 000 for their first year of study – the cheapest Wits offers in its Humanities department. And, of that, they need to find almost R10 000 upfront.

Even stripping out the upfront payment, that’s R3 000 a month – more than many, many people earn.

As my mate would say: Wowzer!

And then, assuming students somehow find financing, they need to get a job. Most positions require experience, leading to the inevitable catch 22. And they require experience because what is being taught at universities just doesn’t match what companies need. I’ve heard that time and time again. That issue came up again when I guest-lectured last week. The institution is specifically trying to link the curriculum to what the working world needs.

I experienced it when I interned at The Star many moons ago. Thank you, dear news editor, for not throwing that copy back at me resplendent with profanities.

So, how can we solve the twin dilemmas of marrying work and what students learn, while at the same time finding a funding model that works?

Business needs to get on board – and now. Take EOH’s internship programme a step further and fund worthy students in exchange for their time during the vacations.

Yes, it’s an expense. Yes, it will weigh on your income sheet. And not spending that cash will cost all of us dearly in the future.

This is our country, our future. It’s time to step up to the plate.

* Nicola Mawson is the online editor of Business Report. Follow her on Twitter @NicolaMawson or Business Report @busrep.