By Akhona Landu
South African students have a vibrant history of actively contributing towards changing the state of the country’s education system. The students before us stood tall and proud against an oppressive regime that stifled opportunities to excel for students across the country. They were unapologetic in their demands and methods of ensuring that the change they fought for occurred and would have sustainable benefits for future generations.
Our generation has been passed a baton fuelled with passion, vigour and a commitment to continue the work of those who fought struggles that were unique to their time.
Forty years since the 1976 student uprisings, a lot has changed but the residue of the previous system is showing its effects of rapidly decreasing opportunities for those who do not have access to funds. Over the years, we have seen an alarming amount of deserving students not completing their higher education studies due to the unavailability of finances.
I personally believe that higher education should be included as a basic human right. I boldly say this because not obtaining a higher education qualification results in less professionals, which has a direct effect on our country’s economy and further widens the already worrying economic divide.
Yes, basic education is extremely important but it is through higher education where active economy contributors are developed and future leaders are groomed.
I would like to commend each and every student who stood up and made their voice heard in 2015. We are now entering the 2016 academic year with your needs as a priority that drives administrators from higher education institutions and student representative councils (SRCs) nationwide to engage and find sustainable solutions. Your decision to stand up drove engagement in the right direction.
I would like to be clear though that I in no way condone the disruption, vandalism and violence that occurred. As the president of the SRC, my administration and I still maintain that as students we could have explored alternative tactics to ensure that all our grievances were heard and for sustainable solutions to be found.
So why do I say that the Fees Must Fall campaign is a blessing?
Well, I think we have to take a few steps back to fully understand my current disposition.
Government has increased education funding from R11-billion in 2006 to R26-billion in 2013. The evident increase in higher education expenditure has to be acknowledged but recent student protests indicate that what is being done is far from enough.
The current economic climate has resulted in the unfortunate decline in the percentage of government’s budget and GDP. This has put pressure on tuition fees, university funding and access to higher education for scores of deserving higher education students.
The allocation of student loans by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has risen to R6.6-billion for the years 2016-2017, recent protests indicate that eligible students are not adequately accessing the available funds and in some cases students have not been funded or were underfunded and remain with debts.
There are numerous reasons why this is the case but the primary one that needs to be highlighted is the socio-economic divide where some students have had challenges with documentation needed to complete the NSFAS application and also that some students lose access to technology that allows them to communicate with institutions of financial support as soon as they board the bus, taxi or train taking them to the township, village or homestead they call home.
Then comes the issue of the “missing middle” — those who are not poor enough to stand out but also unable to afford the cost of higher education due to the reality of their families being in the position of just getting by. The social shame linked with the affordability illusion of the middle classes needed a campaign such as Fees Must Fall to amplify their needs.
Another element I appreciated about the campaign was the fact that universities and the media began to look at the plight of students holistically. At the University of the Western Cape the included issues such as affordable access to healthcare, lack of student accommodation, funding challenges for both postgraduate and undergraduate students, increased academic support for non-first year students and extended access to on-campus facilities such as laboratories and libraries. These issues had resulted in increased anxiety and mistrust between students and us their leaders.
As we begin the 2016 academic year let us be cognizant of the reality that we need to proceed as a united voice that advocates for non-blurred opportunities to ensure that we contribute towards the normalisation of excellence for us and by us.
Akhona Landu is the president of University of the Western Cape’s Student Representative Council.