Only radical action brings solutions
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All stakeholders should strive to ensure that tertiary education does not remain limited to the privileged few, writes Angela Mudukuti.
After announcing a 10.5 percent fee hike for next year, Wits University saw its students take action against this decision in the form of mass protests.
A predominantly peaceful protest was launched by students who sought to get an undertaking from the Wits University Council that the fees would not increase.
Protest action designed to bring university activities to a standstill undoubtedly constitutes drastic action and it also raises a significant question: Why is drastic action required before students are heard regarding important issues such as the cost of education?
The protests at Wits bring into sharp focus the power of demonstrations and reflect that universities in this country remain a site of proactive engagement on important social and economic issues.
Globally, protest action by students in the past has led to important reform and raised awareness on various issues. For example, student activism was a vital form of advocacy during the fight for civil rights in the US. American students also organised massive protests against the Vietnam War effectively spreading strong anti-war sentiments and forcing the average American to critically question US foreign policy.
Closer to home, students of all ages were instrumental in the fight against apartheid.
South African universities continue to breed proactive and engaged citizens. This is vital for the future of this nation and should be viewed in a positive light.
Student activism has always been and should remain an important tool to promote change and raise awareness.
But the fact that protest action of this nature – in this day and age – is still necessary, and is so frequently used, raises concerns. Must it always come to this before constructive solutions are devised?
The Wits protests brought the university to a grinding halt, classes were disrupted and access to the campus restricted.
Protesting students staged sit-ins and organised marches, refusing to budge until their demands were met.
As usual, such actions divide public opinion. Why should non-protesting students be disrupted and hampered from leaving the campus? But then again, isn’t protest action inherently and necessarily disruptive for it to be effective?
Some students took to Twitter to state how they were being held against their will and not being allowed to leave the campus.
Others, while in support of the strike, highlighted that the timing was poor given that exams were fast approaching. Different student reactions to the protest raise questions about the right to demonstrate, freedom of expression, freedom of movement and whether the right to education is truly being promoted and fulfilled.
The events on the Wits campus show that drastic and disruptive action is unfortunately necessary before management takes its student population seriously.
This seems to be a growing trend in universities across the nation.
Earlier this year, it took radical action from students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) before their transformation-related complaints were taken seriously.
While other mechanisms for raising complaints with university management exist, it seems that protest action yields results. However, one should consider whether this is a model that should be encouraged in South Africa – particularly because the Wits protests have inspired similar protest action at Rhodes University and UCT where students are also alarmed about proposed fees increases at their institutions. While protest action is likely to always have an important place in South Africa, the development of more effective and efficient complaint mechanisms should be prioritised as students clearly feel that drastic measures are the only means by which they will be heard.
One can question the methods employed by the students, but the cause they fight for is a noble, unquestionable one. The cost of tertiary education is high. Granted, maintaining academic standards and university premises is not cheap, but raising fees to levels that are simply unaffordable for most is not the solution. Which brings me to my next question – shouldn’t government be doing more to make tertiary education affordable and have they addressed the underlying causes of this debacle?
The current discontent regarding tertiary education fees reveals that the government is yet to effectively address the underlying causes which include the poor distribution of wealth and grave inequality.
The disparity between the rich and the poor continues to grow and this ultimately limits fair access to tertiary education.
Until wealth is better distributed, until a deeper sense of equality is entrenched, this will not be the last round of protest action at tertiary institutions in South Africa.
Given that education is the key to a successful and prosperous South Africa, the government and all stakeholders should strive to ensure that tertiary education does not remain limited to the privileged few. The exigent calls from students cannot continue to fall on deaf ears.
* Mudukuti is an international criminal justice lawyer
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.