Much of the debate around education in South Africa centres on reports that our basic and secondary education system and standards are languishing at the bottom of world ranking lists. Protests on campuses during 2015 changed that. Leadership goes behind the rhetoric to unpack the problems, seek out solutions and, most importantly, provide a clearer picture of what key stakeholders are doing to solve these problems.

In its Provincial Budgets and Expenditure Review: 2010/11 – 2016/17, the National Treasury conceded that “South Africa’s spending on education compares favourably with other developing and middle-income countries. However, outcomes do not compare favourably”. The focus of the debate shifted to higher education and training during a devastating year of disruption in 2015. March 2015 saw students at the University of Cape Town (UCT) campaign for the removal of the Cecil John Rhodes statue from the UCT campus. The #RhodesMustFall protests gained momentum and came to signify a wider mobilisation of workers and students for broader change including “decolonization” and an end to institutional racism at tertiary institutions in the country.

The movement gained international attention and was taken up by a group of students at Oxford University in England who, likewise, campaigned for the removal of a Rhodes statue from their own campus.

This campaign was overtaken by the #FeesMustFall movement in October 2015. What began as a protest at select South African universities against fee increases rapidly evolved into calls for a debt pardon for all indebted students. Numerous tertiary institutions in the country were forced to delay the start of the end-of-year exams (and in some cases cancel them completely) when protest action turned violent, which led to significant destruction of property.

The #FeesMustFall campaign was hailed as a success in some quarters as President Zuma announced that fees would be frozen for 2016. However, the protests continued into January 2016, disrupting in-person registration at some institutions. Protests centred on the fact that students with historical debt were prevented from reregistering.

The University of the Witwatersrand (WITS) released a statement announcing that the historical debt of all students who were on NSFAS in 2015 would be settled by the state. “Students who were not on NSFAS in 2015 will unfortunately be obliged to clear their debt before they will be allowed to register. We would have liked to make a concession in this regard, but the historical debt of these students amounts to over R100-million and, if we were to make such a concession, the University would be thrown into a financial crisis that would compromise the education of all students.”

The violence that accompanied some of the protests at universities around the country proved to be immensely costly for these institutions. Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, is quoted in Eye Witness News as saying that damages to university buildings between October 2015 and mid-2016 were estimated at almost half a billion rand.

When questioned about whether there were any positive outcomes arising from the student protests, the Dr Nzimande told Leadership that “the positives of the uprising vary but, notably, a presidential commission was tasked to look into funding options for the poor. There is extensive work going on in finding ways and resources to provide financial support to students whose parents fall in the ‘missing middle’. These include nurses, police, clerks and others in the private sector. Of course, the more general positive is that more people begin to take interest in the real cost of education. The private sector is slowly coming on board by way of pledging funds into NSFAS coffers and some private sector entities directly support students through bursaries and related means.”

Leadership canvassed numerous other leaders in the education sector for their views on the impact of the protests and the underlying issues highlighted during the campaigns.

“South Africa’s youth are angry and disillusioned and, while private higher education may not have experienced direct disruption on our campuses, we are part of a broader system being confronted with very real questions and really difficult choices between equally complex and challenging alternatives. Private higher education does best when it can operate as a viable alternative for individual students in a secure and stable and productive educational environment—we do best when students choose us as we meet their personal aspirations and not just because of uncertainty in other contexts,” said Dr Felicity Coughlan, Director of the Independent Institute of Education.

“It is everyone’s duty and obligation to address the younger generation and to convince them not to destroy their own academic opportunities through the destruction of the very educational institutions they need to achieve their career dreams,” argued Prof. Elsabe Coetzee of Tshwane University of Technology.

Professor Narend Baijnath, CEO of the Council on Higher Education, was asked whether the international reputation of South Africa’s tertiary education sector was likely to suffer as a result of the recent student uprisings, but he argued that it wouldn’t be the case.

“Most would understand that universities are the arena for contestations and protest action such as we have witnessed. The youth of a particular generation find their compass, discover or develop their ideals, and sharpen their intellectual and moral stances on the critical issues which confront our society and, in so doing, make their voices heard. Or they take to the streets to raise awareness of their cause. In this case, they brought attention to the continued inequalities in our society, and the particular plight of the poor and members of the middle classes who are finding it unaffordable to fund their children at university. I am not aware that anyone thinks that, due to the protest action, our international reputation might have suffered,” he said.

Even the private higher education institutions are grappling with how they can improve access for students with limited means. Professor Garth Abraham, President and CEO of St Augustine College of South Africa, explained that at his college they are “committed to the principle that those with academic potential or ability should not be denied access to an education. We therefore have a Bursary Scheme through which we are constantly attempting to raise funds.”

Inscape College proved their commitment earlier by establishing a scholarship programme in 2014 to provide “access to higher education in the creative sector to academically deserving candidates who could not otherwise share this privilege. For every 20 fee-paying students, Inscape, funds one previously disadvantaged student,” said Mrs Helen Buhrs, Managing Director of the Inscape Education Group.

Despite criticism of some of the government policies and expenditure around education, the post-apartheid government has had undeniable success in improving access to education.

“From 500 000 students in public higher education in 1994, we today have over a million,” remarked Prof. Baijnath. “Another great achievement is in the change in student demographics to the point that the majority of students are now black African, with an upward trajectory in their growth.”

Unfortunately, though, the through-put rates (in other words, the percentage of those who register for a particular course and then graduate successfully) for South African higher education institutions are very low.

“Research has shown that only about 25% of those who register for undergraduate study at contact universities graduate in regulation time and about 48% graduate within five years. At distance providers, such as UNISA, the graduation figures are considerably lower. Overall, it is estimated that around 55% of an intake will never graduate. These figures translate to an average throughput rate of below 20%,” explained
Professor Garth Abraham, President and CEO of St Augustine College of South Africa.

The failure and dropout rates compound some of the risks associated with student loans and have prompted discussion around what can be done to assist students at risk. Different institutions are attempting to mitigate the risks in different ways.

“We have established a client engagement team attending to the individual needs of students both in need of development and at risk. The results have been extraordinary in terms of through-put rates. For our PhD programmes the throughput rate is currently 73%,” said Prof. Bennie Anderson, CEO of the Da Vinci Institute.

“As required by regulation, Milpark monitors academic performance through system-driven at-risk identification mechanisms. Remedial interventions for students identified as at-risk may include things such as additional or alternative courses, coaching, mentoring, academic counselling or a change of programme,” explained Dr Cobus Oosthuizen, Dean of the Milpark Business School of Milpark Business School.

“The major challenge for higher education in the country is to maintain its academic quality and to continue to develop its capacity to contribute to the development process of South Africa and the continent. Linked to this is the ability to extend its capacity to enhance access to increase the participation rate in higher education. Higher education should be critical of its mission to ensure that it continues to strengthen its engagement with industry and society at large as active partners, to ensure its relevance,” concluded Prof. Alwyn Louw of Monash University.

With one of the student unions, the South African Union of Students (SAUS), threatening to enforce the closure of universities if free education doesn’t become a reality in 2017, robust debate is sure to continue for the rest of 2016.

The following interviews with expert voices in the field of higher education will hopefully provide readers with more indepth knowledge about the key issues that need to be understood and then debated, as well as an overview of South Africa’s other higher education facilities and options. 

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