Opinion: How to prioritise university spending in South Africa

Posted on October 13, 2016


One cannot but have empathy for the plight of talented university students who simply do not have enough resources to complete their studies. Of great concern also is the situation in schools where there are no chairs or toilets. For many of these students going to university is not even on the horizon. And there are the needs of the health and many other sectors in society.

Given the scarcity of available funds, the question is how to prioritise in terms of spending – what goes to one sector must come from the other. Funds will always be finite.

The obvious answer is that dealing with this kind of problem is the same reason why we have a democratic process and institutions.

We are no longer in the old days when a section of the community imposed their will on the rest; we decide collectively. Not everyone will get all that they want or need, but there is a give-and-take in the interests of the greater, long-term good of all of us.

Some relief can be brought if we manage to grow the economy and eradicate the rampant corruption, or we can even raise taxes. But if we believe in democracy, such decisions have to be made through democratic processes, including through political participation in elections and through peaceful protest. It is problematic when some students use violence and intimidation to jump the queue and demand preferential treatment.


Students from universities in Pretoria during the #FeesMustFall protests. PICTURE: OUPA MOKOENA


At the same time it remains important not to cluster all the protesting students together. There are some who act in a criminal and reckless manner, and the state does not only have the right but also the duty to protect the rest of society against them. And bullies – or those who throw around faeces – do not cover themselves or their cause in glory.

But there is also a solid core of protesting students who have serious and well-founded concerns about the way our country is being run – about the question how much faith one should really have in the 'greater, long-term good'. It is no wonder they stand up. Students are young, connected to each other, full of ideas and located inside vulnerable strategic assets which can easily be brought to a stand-still.

Like many others who have worked in universities worldwide for years, my first impulse is to say to these students: think about the consequences not only of your own actions, but of the broader forces that have been unleashed and to which you invariably provide oxygen and of which you will be the heirs. If our objective is – as it surely should be – that our universities are relevant to the needs of our society and that we have the ability to find our own solutions to our own challenges, we are going to need strong universities. To close down our universities will mean the great ideas of the future will not be generated here – we will simply have to import ideas from elsewhere. In short, those who burn down our universities are the real agents of colonialism. But the more important point I want to make is that it is up to us to decide what the outcome of the current crisis will be. The most likely scenario may indeed be ruin for our universities and for the country as whole.

By harming our universities, we will simply lose our best weapons in the struggle to meet our needs in a world where survival, flourishing and growth depend on information and knowledge. You cannot switch a university off and on.

But there might still be another option. We can use the current crisis as a platform for what may be described as a restoration of the social fabric. But perhaps 'restoration' is the wrong word because the social fabric was precarious in any event. So let us say we need to weave the social fabric. I do not want to tell others what they should do. It is clear the government's approach needs to change radically. As mentioned above I think the protesting students also have some serious soul-searching to do.

But each one of us needs to start at home and ask what is in our power to do that can turn this around, on the off-chance that there is still enough time to do this. As an academic, I think we should call faculty meetings not only about dealing with the current crisis, but to develop comprehensive turn-around strategies for the future. Pride of place in my book should go to those interventions which allow more personal contact among students and between staff and students.

Each one of us is, after all, because we all are.

If we cannot solve it on the personal level, nothing else will really help. Looking back at what went wrong, it strikes me how disengaged we have been. Students come from different worlds to our campuses, and we as lecturers walk in and out of classes thinking somehow we will all end up on the same boat. I can hear someone at a faculty meeting proposing that a fund for students who need financial assistance should be created, and each professor should be asked to contribute R3 000 per month. This fund should be for the faculty and used for its own students. We need to know and show we are invested in our students.

Moreover, someone may propose that we find a way for lecturers in all departments to be involved as mentors for student activities. In a law faculty, such as the one where I am based, lecturers from one department can for example be involved with the moot courts, another with the student journal, another with the law house, etc.

Older students should mentor the younger ones. In our faculty there is an annual arts festival which falls in the same category. All faculties should arrange opportunities such as regular lunches where students can engage on a personal level with outstanding members of society who carry the responsibility of leadership and where there can be actual debate, not sterile political correctness.

During last week I had the opportunity to attend an event that stood in welcome contrast to the breakdown on campus. Pupils from high schools around the country gathered in Pretoria for the finals of the South African Schools Moot Court Competition. The young and bright-faced children argued a case under the South African Constitution. The final round was held in the Constitutional Court on Sunday, with current and past justices presiding. In the preliminary rounds lawyers from all walks of life did the judging, while local magistrates and others with legal knowledge helped to coach the teams. The competition can be much better organised and reach many more schools, but what struck me was how it draws on our capacities on the ground to make a difference.

The approach is not that we wait for the state or the outside world to solve our problems – we do it ourselves. Imagine if all the law faculties in the country make it their priority to coach teams from schools in their immediate environment. Many long-term bonds will be formed and hidden talent discovered – the people who will thrive in a university environment and really belong on campus. We also need, on every campus in the country, a student volunteer organisation, allowing our students to work in communities during the holidays, renovating schools, giving additional classes to the pupils.

As one student told me: 'We have a serious lack of what-to-do.' As a country we need to channel the restless energy of our young people. It is through caring for others that one develops a sense of self-worth and responsibility.

We urgently need a package of our own common sense, close-to-the-ground solutions, as opposed to waiting for someone to come and show us the way. 'You may say I am a dreamer, but I'm not the only one.'


Professor Christof Heyns is the Director of the Institute for International and Comparative Law in Africa (ICLA) in the Faculty of Law at the University of Pretoria, and a former dean of the faculty.


* This opinion piece was published in the Pretoria News of 8 October 2016.



- Author Prof Christof Heyns

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