Time to deal decisively with the anarchic behaviour of students
Higher education participation rate is defined as the likelihood of young people participating in higher education by the age of thirty. Using this definition, it is not hard to demonstrate that Africans in South Africa remain under-represented in terms of participation rates in the sector. The participation rate for whites in 1993 was 70%; in 2016 it was about 40%. By contrast, participation rates for Africans improved marginally during that period from 9 to only 12%.
It is precisely because of this reality that government’s transformation efforts have centred on ensuring that a greater number of African students gain access to higher education. Demographics represent the most visible aspect of change. It is about getting the optics right.
This is where the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) comes in. So far NSFAS has been successful in getting poor working-class and rural students into the higher education system. NSFAS supports over 90% of students in rural-based universities. Without NSFAS higher education would have remained a pipe dream for many of these students.
NSFAS represents the most generous, and arguably one of the most effective - a commitment by government to the children of the poor. It covers tuition, subsistence, transport, books, and accommodation. As if that is not enough, poor and academically deserving students are covered for the full period of undergraduate study plus an additional year. The latter concession in effect means that a student who fails his studies at least once is still covered by the scheme.
In return for this generous commitment, government demands very little from the NSFAS beneficiaries. There are indications that this generosity is being abused or taken for granted by some. Perhaps this is the tragedy that befalls anything that seems to come for free.
In essence, the availability of NSFAS has changed the dynamics in higher education, such that the biggest challenges in the sector have ceased to centre around funding. The contextual shift has now redefined the landscape of expectations and experiences. With these changes, the centre of the crisis engulfing higher education is now the failure by students to meet their side of the bargain in the NSFAS compact.
Put sharply, failure to make academic progress is at the heart of the so-called academic and financial exclusions. This is because NSFAS does not support students that fail to make the minimum grade of passing more than fifty percent of their subjects. Poorly performing students must raise funds on their own if they wish to still proceed with their studies. This is how it should be. With so many social and economic challenges, there is no reason why taxpayers should continue to support students that refuse to take advantage of the opportunities and privileges that are provided.
Currently, NSFAS funds about 12 000 students at the University. These are students who have met the required academic performance threshold. Students who have failed to show good academic progress have accordingly been excluded in terms of the NSFAS rules.
The artificially manufactured crisis at the University of Zululand centres around academic non-performance. The most prominent agitators of the academic disruptions have been at the University of Zululand since 2013.
These are students that failed to complete a 4-year degree in the last 9 years, and in certain instance, some even still have outstanding second-year modules. And yet these are the very same students who continue to post defamatory messages against the University and its management, often inciting violence and having no regard for the letter of the law and university processes.
Arguably it is these academic non-performers that continue to hold the entire higher education hostage. They are prepared to take down everyone with them. Until the leaders of the higher education sector are prepared to face down this annual threat to institutional stability, the sector will remain trapped in a never-ending crisis.
Equally, this is a crisis that should be addressed at a societal level. Until and unless society at large take a stance and a dim view of this anarchy, the higher education sector would continue to witness the annual baptism of terror, vandalism, intimidation, destruction of property including the burning of various assets, etc. This leaves the future of the academically deserving students hanging in the balance.
Nothing illustrates better the desperation of the academic no-hopers than two of their list of demands. The first is that the university should remove pre-requisite for study and the second is the removal of term limits for studying. In other words, these malcontents argue that students should be allowed to take permanent residence at the University. Nothing could be more nonsensical than this.
Lastly, perhaps out of ignorance, students have tended to place NSFAS issues on university administration.
The reality is that no university has control on how NSFAS runs its affairs. In addition, universities are governed by rules, and these include an expectation that students will progress in their studies. We should reiterate the fact that for every student admitted into higher education, there are about 10 other deserving students that couldn't be admitted. When students fail, they occupy a space that other deserving students would have taken, and thus waste the meagre resources of the country.
Students are free to express their dissatisfaction with decisions taken by the university or other authorities, there should however never be an excuse for them to burn and loot property, or to intimidate and threaten other people, be they students or not. We should take stern action to stamp out this self-destructive tendency.
* Professor Mtose is vice-chancellor and Principal University of Zululand.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.