Op-ed: The silent ones, rights and innovation

Posted on November 02, 2016


There can be no doubt that many people are experiencing great anxiety about the current situation at universities and other places of learning and knowledge development, for a variety of reasons and from different perspectives. So why have no solutions been found? I believe it is because all parties involved are losing sight of the three elements necessary for a long-term solution.

Firstly, the voices of the silent ones are not being heard; secondly, the imperative to review and re-establish rights and responsibilities is pressing; and thirdly, there is a need to find innovative solutions.

Who are the silent ones, you may ask. They are those whose lives never changed for the better because of education, as they received hardly any education. The lives of their children never changed for the better because of education, as the education they received was inadequate. These people live in or near poverty in tiny dwellings on farms or in townships and towns. They hope and pray that the lives of their grandchildren will be improved through education.

Should all stakeholders not pause for a moment and consider them, the silent ones?

All stakeholders in this issue have rights that must be respected. Students have the right to ask questions and demand answers. Their quest for these answers is tangible. Universities are supposed to be autonomous entities where academic staff can fulfil their passion to the benefit of themselves and students. This autonomy is currently not being realised.  Government has the right to plug holes where market forces and history fall short of meeting the needs of citizens, and should actively do so. Members of society have the right to live and work in peace, knowing their children and fellows are safe. Businesses have the right to employ people who meet their requirements and to invest in the futures of these individuals, utilising their unique skills to do so.

One fundamental issue that must be addressed purposefully revolves around the question, 'When is tertiary education a right, and when is it a privilege?' Until now any sort of post-matric education or skills development was seen as a privilege, with the automatic premise for which the individual (with some sort of support as an afterthought from business, government and society) must pay. In a knowledge/skills-based economy, a post matric education cannot be seen as a privilege reserved only for those who have the financial means to achieve it. Access to this right based on financial circumstances should be seen as intolerable to the individual, the government, business and society.

As is the case with ensuring basic rights such as healthcare and safety, this does not come without a financial cost. The economic benefit, however, cannot and should not be questioned within the context of human rights. Most stakeholders have been looking at it only in terms of the financial implications. Yes, somebody has to pay in rands and cents, but the benefits in economic terms justify the expense in the long run. Accepting the reality that the state coffers are empty, businesses are struggling to survive, and parents find it difficult to pay for basic household goods, means that new paradigms are needed. Innovative ways should be sought to pay (Should it be considered an expense?) for a new generation of individuals to equip themselves to become competitive workers in a global economy.

Of course, as the custodian of these rights, government should take the lead in establishing the fundamental infrastructure and resourcing of what is required. They should tap into global coffers to make it happen, with a clear and simple business case, based on long-term economic benefits. Increasing the fiscal deficit could be considered as a means of making this happen. Recovering money invested in bringing state-owned enterprises to profitability is another possible avenue. The options should be endless.

Universities must ask themselves why the cost to students who enrol in undergraduate programmes is often greater than to those for who enrol for postgraduate studies. Yes, postgraduate study consumes less university resources than undergraduate study, and postgraduate study is also needed in a knowledge-intensive world, but public funds must not be used to subsidise postgraduate study. In essence, postgraduate study is a privilege for which the individual and the private sector should pay. Postgraduate knowledge, at the expense of fundamental knowledge, should not currently be on South Africa's agenda. Future cost and governance models should reflect this.

Yes, the business of business is to do business, but this should be done within a socio-economic context. Three issues are of specific relevance. Firstly, businesses must be incentivised to significantly increase investment in the skills of tomorrow, and not only through traditional avenues such as bursaries and some infrastructure. The creation of long-term public-private commercial partnerships, increased tax incentives for the sponsorship of academic programmes and staff, the incorporation of contributions to fund needy students into BBBEE scorecards, and so forth, are just a few possibilities. Secondly, the business sector should accept that it will have to make investments in education where there is not necessarily a clear business case, it is just the right thing to do. Thirdly, the private sector should not be impeded in any way in establishing educational entities on a commercial basis. This will mean that the current model for funding of higher education institutions will have to be abolished to create a level playing field.

Implementing a new dispensation will inevitably also cause anxiety. However, should stakeholders agree to the above principles and recognise that South Africa cannot afford another generation of silent people, it can be done.


George Harley works for the University of Pretoria. The opinions expressed in this article are his personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect those off the University.

- Author George Harley

Copyright © University of Pretoria 2024. All rights reserved.

FAQ's Email Us Virtual Campus Share Cookie Preferences