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.
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.