The fire next time? Part 2

The fire next time? Part 2, making sense of the crisis

Universities in crisis

This blog is the second of a multi-part discussion of the crisis in South African universities which in 2015 and 2016, under a number of #Hashtag names but in particular #FeesMustFall, brought massive protests, considerable violence, even greater destruction of university buildings and other infrastructure, and wide-spread university closures. A number of changes were agreed as a result: there was no fee increase in 2016; in most universities, service workers returned to insourced university contracts; a number of statues and similar items were removed; there were agreements concerning curricula and related matters; criminal charges against an array of student protesters were withdrawn. Attached to fees and demands for free higher education, other issues were also drawn in, and the relationship between private troubles and public issues involved has been a complex one. These blogs attempt to gain purchase on both these events themselves, and the wider context in which they occurred and are likely to recur around the start of new academic year in January 2018 and anticipated announcements of increases or otherwise in university fees.

Part 1 (last week’s blog) takes off from a discussion of recent books with very different viewpoints on these matters, and my own (coincidental) arrival on a number of university campuses either during or in the wake of these events and talking to many people involved in them, some student participants but mainly teaching staff and administrators, parents and bystanders. It also provides background information about South Africa’s schools and colleges, including that education in schools is not free and remains marked by many structural inequalities in the system. Part 2 (this blog) is concerned with the private troubles/public issues aspect and discusses both macro and micro matters of relevance. Part 3 draws on the ideas of Norbert Elias in endeavouring to reach an overall interpretation of the hows and whys of the protests and consider what pointers his work provides for thinking about ‘what now?’ and with what limitations. Part 4 turns attention to the student movement and revolts of 1920 and 1947, using those occurring at Lovedale College as a case study for comparison with the present-day protests. For non-South Africans, it should be noted that the discussions in Parts 2, 3 and 4 will not make full sense without also reading the contextual information in Part 1.

My account of the ‘universities in crisis’ situation is that of an informed outsider with long-term close associations with South Africa and its universities. I make no claim that it is the only way to think about the events concerned and their origins and longer-term outcomes, and it is offered tentatively and provisionally, not least because awaiting further outcomes. It is as follows.

Some key aspects

The protests and ensuing violence and widespread infrastructural damage, with the repetition of these events over two years and likely to repeat in a third as well, have taken place in the context of endemic structural issues. Against this backcloth, they have been sparked off by the occurrence in a number of places in succession of tinderbox triggering events. Universities in South Africa have in a short time-period expanded rapidly in a context in which state funding has significantly decreased and student fees have become an increasingly important income stream, although in practice most students do not pay the fees themselves, which are funded through application to a state agency. Ostensibly setting fees and fee increases is the prerogative of the individual universities within guidelines as to ceilings. In practice, on a number of occasions both the Minister of Education and the President have intervened, sometimes in contradictory and conflicting ways; and in 2016 in the wake of protests outside the Union building, the President unilaterally announced there would be a zero fees increase that year. Damage to buildings alone have cost many billions of Rand, adding to the funding problems which have generated the fees issue as a focal point for the protests, while there has been little political response at governmental level apart from these one-off interventions.

The protests have witnessed the ubiquitous use by #Hashtag student protesters of social media, enabling both rapid communication between protesters and also multi-node feeds to the mass media, with many self-consciously modelling their activities on influences from the Occupy movement and North African protests and uprisings in the so-called Arab Spring of 2011. Initially multi-composition protests that included a wide range of student interests and opinion, this initial unity has over time largely broken up around the surfacing of deep differences between the different groups involved. Over time, core groups have become apparent. Some of these are the campus arms of national political groupings; others are directly oppositional to mainstream political structures. Some of those involved have become ‘professional activists’, cadres for whom activism and protest is what they do. In some places these ‘travelling activists’ have shunted between universities in close proximity to each other, and also there has been some busing in of local gangs. Probably a majority of registered students just want to get their degrees and move on, many of whom feel intimidated by these events, and some of whom have been subject to physical violence or threatened with violence as turncoats. University closures have followed not only large and at times violent protests, but also serial violence against persons (eg.  stoning and fire-bombing non-protestor student buses; trapping campus security workers in buildings that have been fired) and also the burning of on a significant scale of university buildings and their often state-of-the-art equipment.

There have been a range of academic responses. While such things as marches  and other action in full support have occurred, they have not been typical, although probably the majority of staff have sympathy with various of the issues involved. Perhaps of greater long-term significance have been the changes in course delivery that have occurred to ensure that the non-activist student majority can continue with their courses and assessments. These have included such measures as ensuring all students have access to laptops and other computers with full web accessibility, the development of teaching around podcasts, the provision of reading materials in electronic forms, and devising forms of assessment that can be web-completed and marked. In a number of universities, considerable resourcing has gone into these and they are now part of, and will stay part of, the framework of university course and degree provision. There are obviously implications for the face-to-face and group contact aspects of education, but with the need for crisis management having led to these being bracketed.

While the protests have focused on university fees and associated issues including a return to insourcing university service work, the roots seem more complex and diverse. Failures in the school system and their knock-on effects, violence and corruption in national political culture, the routinisation of violence in many local communities, are all involved. A very complicated set of factors have come together around the massification of higher education and the protests have been triggered by in themselves small events, like a leftover statue here (University of Cape Town) and a fees increase there (University of Witwatersrand).

These matters are the focus for a detailed discussion which explores the complex intersections between private troubles and public issues that are involved. The full version of Part 2 containing this discussion will be published on the WWW website after the last of these blogs appears. Part 3 appears as next week’s blog.

Last updated: 14 September 2017


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