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Earlier on in the year when University of Cape Town students launched the #RhodesMustFall campaign, I was worried that students were focussing on the removal of statues when there were real issues that could lead to real change that needed to be tackled. I was concerned that while we were busy talking about old symbols of oppression, we were forgetting to remove their existing legacies that still manifested in the quality of our education, the lack of academic transformation, and the student funding and financing model of our universities. It turns out that I was missing the fact that a revolution was being born and that the class of 2015 were going to get there, and soon.

I must commend the current university students for managing to do something that we, as their predecessors, failed to do and that is to lead campaigns that gained national momentum and resulted in actual change — and not the stalemates that the protests of our time often did. To witness a generation supposedly born into freedom, exercising their democratic rights and leading national debates on critical issues around national symbols and our higher education is truly exceptional. Sadly, it also shows just how apathetic and absent from history my peers who were born between 1980 and 1990 will be.

UCT students march through Rondebosch Main Road on October 20, 2015, making their way to Rondebosch police station to demand the release of fellow students who had been arrested earlier in the day. Photo by David Harrison
UCT students march through Rondebosch Main Road on October 20, 2015, making their way to Rondebosch police station to demand the release of fellow students who had been arrested earlier in the day. Photo by David Harrison

The thing is protests around financial exclusion and fee increases in South Africa are not at all new. If anything in fact, they are an annual event at most universities that date back to the dawn of our new democracy in 1994. In May 2001, one such protest against the financial exclusion of 500 students at what is now the University of KwaZulu-Natal resulted in a police officer shooting and killing Michael Makhabane, a 23-year-old unarmed student. Even the death of this unarmed student in what might have very well been the first police killing post-apartheid, did not manage to gather the required momentum to bring about any change or start a national debate.

What I have always been astounded by around such protests, is media coverage and the ill-sentiment from some civilian observers that seem to condemn strike action around the issues of fees. Many have argued that “tertiary education is a privilege and not a right”. One even argued the matter to be “simple” and that if you cannot afford to go to university or find a scholarship or bursary to fund you, then you cannot go.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple as education is heavily subsidised by the whole country and should not be reserved for those who have money. Imagine we barred the kids of the poor from education because their parents didn’t have money. The world would have been robbed of some of the greatest minds if affordability meant that they could not access tertiary education.

What is also surprising is that the very same people that emigrate and continuously moan and complain about the high levels of violent crime and the state of our economy are the same people that hold such negative views about speaking out on the exclusionary fee structure of our tertiary institutions. They are forgetting that education often emancipates people from poverty, which in turn means that they do not have to turn to a life of crime. This is in the general interests of the country as a whole and these students are literally fighting to get educated.

If I have a look at the role that tertiary education has had in my own life, I simply cannot discount its life-changing abilities. In just my father being afforded the opportunity to study, he could put my mother through university and in turn all of their children. Through one person being educated, four more people were saved from poverty and became contributors to the tax-base rather than being burdens on it.

This could have been the case for more of his siblings but the opportunities were scarce under apartheid.

If we no longer want to live in one of the most dangerous countries with the dubious honours of being one of the world’s most unequal societies, we should all be serious about education and accessibility to it — for all. We should either be joining the protesting students or applauding them from the sidelines.

Unfortunately however, fault lies more with government and less with university administrators.

There is a reason why universities are expensive and that is because they require highly qualified staff and need to be run much like municipalities that require constant upgrades of infrastructure and maintenance. This is not an inexpensive undertaking and is funded through government subsidies, fees from students and “third stream income” usually in the form of fund raising.

The real reason why universities have to constantly increase fees is that the government subsidy is simply not adequate in South Africa. It currently sits at around 0.6% of GDP and is much lower when compared with other emerging nations such as India (1.3%), Russia (1.8%) and Saudi Arabia (2.3%). Our spending on higher education sits at a mere 12% of education as a whole whereas continental average is 20% and the global average which sits close at 19.8%. This is inconsistent with the fact that we are one of the highest spenders, in terms of GDP, on education as a whole.

In students forcing their university leaders to lower fees, they will in turn put pressure on their biggest sponsors — the government — for more money. This pressure is necessary. As society at large, it is then up to us to make sure that we continue the protest at the ballot boxes to make sure that we elect a government that prioritises education and adequately invests in it.