By Tafi Mhaka

I gather there is absolute mayhem on the streets of Braamfontein. Should the mayor ask that bespectacled and somewhat reluctant superhero known as Peter Parker to save the day? Or should he call on the powerful Justice League superheroes to police the villains who stoned shops and restaurants in and around De Korte Street, which is in the vicinity of the University of Witwatersrand?

No, he should not have to. That is because you Dear Reader are that quintessential superhero South Africa should turn to. Perhaps you can help out and Batman and company can respectfully sit this one out while we work things out on our own in a non-violent manner? You do not have to be a latter day Superman to see that something must be done as the dire injustice of so-called rich or poor students alike not getting or not completing a higher education in 2016 stands abundantly clear.

But let us get this just right: what are we working out first of all? This fees must fall saga is not about faceless protestors making front page headlines for all the wrong reasons you could suitably muster in Student Politics 101. It is hardly about the smouldering ashes of an SABC vehicle burnt by shamefully violent protestors in Braamfontein. It certainly is not about the dreadful looting of shops and stoning of private cars there: despicable actions which I assume most passive supporters of free education will not cheer or sympathise with.

Right now there are so many prophets of doom predicting the demise of the education system out there, but do not let the Gotham city-like combat scenes on the streets of Braamfontein fool you into labelling the national protests that we see happening on campuses from Rhodes University all the way to the University of Limpopo as merely the wayward actions of a few disgruntled and violent fringe elements, because deep in the thick clouds of criminal madness casting a dark shadow over lectures and end-of-year examinations at Wits University and other places of learning, lies hidden a coded message for us to carefully decipher and take lessons from, and all the better in good time.

What is your take on the protests, or the many arguments for and against fees must fall? Your view is just as valuable, if not much more important than most, seeing as you are likely to be responsible for paying the fees of a student or you will be at some point in the future – or you are related to a student.

Do you think students must learn to get things right from the very start and not do the wrong degrees, as some experts say? Who knows if there is a lesson to be learnt from this much repeated claim? I just find it hard to caution aspiring students against taking courses offered by highly prestigious academic faculties that should know a thing or two about whether certain degrees are useless or not.

Maybe you believe university is somehow not for everyone? Is this the burning issue at the heart of the fees must fall conundrum? Just what is the practical alternative out there that works like a degree does in the market place, which offers some decent measure of security and can potentially land jobseekers a vocation that pays relatively well in the long term if they work hard enough at it?

Do you reckon a well-meaning financial aid model is simply reeling under pressure from high and increasing undergraduate admissions? Yes, that could be it, as more and more students are making it to university and rising financial costs and inflationary pressures are resulting in higher tuition fees and less disposable incomes for most hard-up benefactors.

Or, is it safe to say, poor discipline, as well as falling academic standards are the real causes of the nationwide disruptions? It is hard to say for certain, but this is certainly about a university system buckling under the prolonged strain of a sustained no fees campaign, a new reality that questions the exclusive nature of higher education and compels us to examine what the days ahead may have in store for students, and by extension, you and I.

So let us gaze into the future and share a soul-searching Blindfold-like moment of revelation for a second. Be honest: who do you see staring back at you in the proverbial mirror in a year or two from now? Do you see an upstanding member of the community who has lent a figurative hand of support to students who can only afford to dream of going to university, or have you largely laughed off their cries for help as wishful thinking? Do you see a person who has taken the time to whisper words of inspiration to students who may not have sufficient funds to complete their studies this year – or ever in their lives – or have you waved off their woes as nothing barely out of the norm for ordinary folks?

Would you say the person staring back at you has offered constructive criticism and put forth substantial solutions to the fees crisis? Or has the familiar figure you see simply wondered if students do not know that going to university is a lengthy and costly academic exercise? Has that hesitant hero staring at you resolved to shy away from becoming intimately involved in fees must fall?

It is pleasing to see News24 report that management at UNISA have opted to forfeit their bonuses in support of poor students. Some R10 million will instead go into a kitty for deserving students who need financial aid. You might have much to say about this donation or other donations or indeed where funding should ideally come from, but this is not the time to muse over that.

This most considerate donation from staff members at UNISA is a warm and heroic gesture. Because a well-educated populace makes it much easier to for a society to become rich or indeed richer; just look at Japan, the country with the third largest economy in the world for reference. Japan is the third most educated country in the world, according to a study conducted by the Organisation for economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in 2012.

So let us break new ground and find a fresh homegrown solution to this crisis. We can look elsewhere for inspiration, but still introduce a holistically South African solution. There must be a middle of the road solution somewhere: a new higher education model, where the interests of students, employers and educators find common ground.

The introduction of middle colleges that offer shorter, sharper, affordable skills-based courses might offer a fresh start. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation sponsors a middle college program that affords students a more independent kind of high school-cum-college education in New York. Could this be the way to go in the future? Additionally, an increase in Competency-based learning could reduce state subsidies, reduce fees and increase access to higher education and minimise the work-skills gap South African firms grapple with daily.

So this struggle for higher education funding is a broad universal fight in so many ways. It is a battle so many students are forced to confront after high school. It is a struggle so many developing countries must overcome in the 21st century. This is not the juncture to apportion blame or find scapegoats for the grave rubble of discontent confronting us. We could blame these student uprisings on capitalism. We could shut the noises of popular student dissent out, fold our hands in sheer resignation, or, we could wish this problem away, in the unlikely hope it dies a silent death far from the gaze of the public eye. But that will not happen, or help. So South Africa: Will you dig deep and summon your inner Peter Parker?

 

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