Aarti Panday
Aarti Panday

#WitsFeesMustFall: Why part-time student work is not the answer

I must commend the Wits students for standing up for a very real issue that affects students across the country. You are my heroes! Some social media commenters have berated the student protesters for not finding part-time jobs to fund their studies. Based on my own student experience at Wits, I cannot agree that it is merely as simple as finding a part-time job.

Firstly, I have to state the obvious: When you are enrolled at a higher education institute as an undergraduate, you are enrolled full time. You are expected to be at class, attend tutorials, conduct experiments in the laboratory, do assignments, tests, projects and exams. There is a structured, rigid and consistent schedule day in, day out, week in, week out, term in, term out.

Right here is the first challenge in funding yourself through a part-time job — as a full-time student you are expected to BE a full-time student. Labs are not optional. Tutorials, though some students might choose to skip them, are essential. Exam time is exam time. A university timetable is based on academic activities not the employment schedules of students.

Photo: M&G

Photo: M&G

Despite this obvious fact, there are those who have no choice but to get part-time job(s) to fund their studies. Not for extra pocket money, but to pay their tuition fees. This is a reality across all universities in the country. I truly respect these students and wish that more can be done to support them.

Secondly, and also obvious, completing one’s degree requires consistent hard work. This is what is needed, this is what we do. Don’t misunderstand me, I am not complaining. Please bring it on. In my experience, my fellow Witsies have never been afraid of hard work all year round. The current wave of protests emphasises this — students are hungry for knowledge.

My engineering degree (just like all other degrees offered at any university) required intensive study, concentration and dedication. Every day. The academic stakes are high as it is. The number of seats are limited. The number of jobs available after graduation are also limited. Academic exclusion is a reality. We accept the academic challenge as it is exactly what we signed up for. The added pressure of financial uncertainty doesn’t help and can seriously jeopardise your success in attaining a degree. Still, there are those students who have no choice but to do so.

Thirdly, one may argue that vacation periods are good for earning extra cash. In engineering, there is a compulsory vacation work obligation in both second and third year at an engineering firm relevant to your field. You earn a student salary — not enough by itself to pay a year worth of fees. In engineering, vacations are already taken up by the requirements for the degree. There is only so much that a student can earn while being a tutor at university — not enough to cover fees though.

Fourthly, the facilities at Wits are amazing. The engineering library subscribes to leading journals and the books available are wide-ranging. Some of the software packages available at the engineering computer labs are used for aircraft structural analysis, computational fluid dynamics, aerodynamics, flight mechanics and are available to students, they form part of coursework and research. There are even wind tunnels in the mechanical engineering lab. I cannot fault Wits here.

Wits has said that it takes money to have these available to students. It is not a special favour to offer these — industry requires a certain type of graduate to enter the workforce, one who has been adequately equipped through exposure to these facilities. It is in the interest of South Africa as a country to offer a comprehensive education with world-class facilities as the norm. It cannot be the responsibility of students and their parents to have to pay exorbitant fees to maintain facilities of national importance.

Finally, I am concerned about the expectations with which we burden young people. In South Africa we already have child-headed households. The responsibility thrust on these children is immense. There is a financial gun to the heads of young people from an early age. We need to invest in them not drown them before they have any real chance at life.

Call me idealistic, but being young is that phase in our lives where we are supposed to have the space to get to know ourselves, to make mistakes and learn from them.

The university experience is transformational and has enriched my life. If I had a do-over, I wouldn’t change a thing. At Wits I learned a work ethic, imbibed a culture of excellence, developed camaraderie, got to understand who I am and the person I’d like to be in society. There isn’t a rand value that I can attach to this, but today, it would seem, this experience will not be afforded to young people in general, because, well, they just can’t afford it.

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    • Dr_Zeek

      Ag shame. Really terrible to be a student at a tertiary institution like Wits.
      Back in the good old days, I worked part-time and had a student loan pre-grad and post-grad and, during my masters, I worked full-time.
      I didn’t engage in lawless behaviour, strike, protest or damage property.
      I didn’t complain about institutional racism or counter-revolutionary fees…just obtained my degrees and went off to become a taxpayer.

    • Pierre Aycard

      Nothing idealistic there, Aarti. This paper is pragmatic, full of common sense, well informed, and it reflects your caring for your country and its young people. Well done.

    • Udo Schuklenk

      Just watching this from far afield, this is puzzling. Wits isn’t a for-profit operation, its faculty aren’t even paid salaries that are internationally competitive (I should know, I worked there for a few years), its facilities are ok, all things considered. Wits is a public university depending mostly on public funds to finance its operations. If public funds dwindle to such an extent that it needs to increase fees to pay its bill, there’s no real surprise in that. So, what puzzles me is that students go after Wits management instead of the government that clearly is responsible for the mess the institution is in.

    • Petbug

      I don’t know if student work load has increased that much. I was an architecture student in early 90s; now teach part time, seems like the same hectic mad rush it was then. I worked at a bus company 8 hrs every Sunday, every Sunday, and every vac full time to pay for my living expenses, materials, etc. I got a bursary, for which I’m eternally grateful, but had to achieve 75% aggregate (!) for five years running. No, it wasn’t easy, my mother was a widower & could not help. And so I knuckled down and sucked it up. And made it.
      Who said studying is a lifestyle choice? And for free?! With SAs tiny tax base and its already huge welfare bill, youngsters need a reality check; nothing in life is dished up on a platter. The sooner they realise it and work/suffer through the studies, the better. For everyone.

    • BrS

      My parents could not afford to send us to university. We worked and borrowed to pay our own way. But if you want to complain about inadequate funding of universities then look squarely at your government for failing to address schooling issues and thus not growing the tax base, as well as employers and employees both of whom would rather engage in protracted strikes than work together, resulting in huge losses to your country. Furthermore count yourself lucky that education, even private, is as cheap as it is in South Africa. Take a look at the UK and US to see how expensive it can get.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      Believe it or not but I look on my university days with great fondness. Sure, 4 of us sharing a bachelor flat (no electricity because that was a luxury we couldn’t afford – the ‘curtain’ was a bed sheet that I nicked from my sister and my ‘bed’ was an old army sleeping bag), aching feet from working as a waitress and a barman, the dull feeling of waking up early on a Sunday to work at the cafe across the road …. it was strangely fun. If nothing else, it enabled me to weather the storms that life threw at me, later in life. Being able to live on a shoestring was possibly the biggest education that university taught me.

    • http://www.thespacebar.biz Voldemort Rupert

      Sure when we went to university it was great fun and excitement to live like that and then go home during the long vac to live like ‘decent’ people. When these kids go home during vac its probably, in most cases, something like, or possibly worse than, “4 of us sharing a bachelor flat (no electricity because that was a luxury we couldn’t afford”.

      It’s different and because you’re coming home from the big city you’re also probably expected to at least bring some kind of treat home.

    • http://www.thespacebar.biz Voldemort Rupert

      Well yesterday they did go after the govt and see what happened to them. Those are our kids and they were unarmed. As Nelson Mandela said “If the ANC does to you what the apartheid government did to you, then you must do to the ANC what you did to the apartheid government.” Now they’ve made arrests under the “Illegal Gatherings Act”. Damn!! I thought that act died with the apartheid government.

    • http://www.thespacebar.biz Voldemort Rupert

      SA’s tiny tax base? Why is it so tiny when their are mega-corporations making money out of supplying us with food that rightly belongs to us; exploiting our environment in order to steal our minerals. Don’t they pay taxes? When there are all these nouveau riche exploiting our labour? Are they not taxed? When govt officials have millions spent on upgrades is that not at least taxable? Are you now justifying the proposed tax increases – including VAT increase. Once again the masses must support the extravagant life-style of the few.

    • RSA.MommaCyndi

      No – that was my ONLY home. The only time I got to live ‘decent’ was when the Holiday Inn put hand driers in the loos and I could sneak in to blow dry my hair.

    • http://www.thespacebar.biz Voldemort Rupert

      LOL! I love you girl!