News Column

Write off unserviceable loans

February 5, 2014

When first year students arrive at university for the first time at the beginning of the academic year, they expect to see tall buildings with the hustle and bustle of people going about the campus. Instead, the first year class of 2014 experienced something like a township service delivery protest, with police and students engaged in running battles. The TV images of police firing rubber bullets at students who were running amok on campuses did not go down well with parents, who expect their children to learn in a safe university environment. The scene of rioting students clashing with the police took me back to the Wits campus during the mid-1980s. As university students, we were involved in running battles with the apartheid police on campus. In our case, we were fighting for the release of Nelson Mandela and for a non-racial, non-discriminatory South Africa . It's now 20 years that we have experienced a free and democratic South Africa . The university students of 2014 are fighting against institutionalised economic apartheid. This is in the form of high university fees, inability of the government agency (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) to provide sufficient funds to study and the refusal of universities to let them register for studies due to the debts they owe to universities. The current financial crisis at some of the universities can be traced back to the disastrous decisions taken by the previous political managers on the restructuring of universities. The merger of universities has not yielded meaningful benefits. The trend all over the world is to have a pool of diverse, small universities which would offer specialised tertiary education. These would then coexist with a few well managed, historically established mega universities. The merger of universities, which one may argue was done for political expediency, has created some fairly comprehensive institutions like Walter Sisulu University , which has proved to be a management nightmare. Some universities have just merged on paper, yet their political cultures and operations remain distinctly separate. We need to begin the process of demerging our universities so as to increase access to specialised, geographically well-spread and properly managed university education. There is more than sufficient research evidence to prove that the merger of our universities was just a wasteful, politically driven exercise and that it would be economically viable and educationally sensible to demerge some, if not all, of the merged universities. The closure of teacher training colleges was also a political blunder which has negatively impacted on the nature and structure of our current universities. The burden for the training of teachers has been placed entirely on universities. This has resulted in some university campuses enrolling excessively large number of education undergraduate students. The government should reopen teacher training colleges to improve access to affordable teacher training education and relieve some university campuses of the heavy burden of training just too many teachers. The old, now defunct, Vista University served a good purpose, except that it was founded on the apartheid model. This university had produced many leaders in government, business and civil society. We need to bring back a similar model for the delivery of university education again to improve access to affordable university education. The reconfiguration of the structure of university education should incorporate a strong dimension of delivery adapted from distance education university systems. Distance learning models supported by technology are widely used to provide university education in some fields of study. Such models of university education delivery have provided education to students who would under normal circumstances not be able to make it to traditional universities. My colleagues who recently took a tour of India were amazed by the capacity of this nation to provide accessible distance learning university education with the support of modern technology. Our own Unisa has played an important historical role in bringing university education to thousands of students from all over the world. Maybe the time has come for all our universities to establish a technology-supported distance education component. Some universities have already started with this, thus ensuring access to affordable quality university education. We need to reconceptualise what universities of the future should look like. The concept of universities being bricks and mortar with an old man professor using a jug-to-mug approach of teaching/learning is fast being replaced by the creation of technology-driven spaces of university teaching and learning. There are, however, also bold immediate decisions which the government must take to defuse the ongoing financial crises at some of our universities. The NSFAS is a noble project which has contributed positively to the funding of tertiary students. But the management of NSFAS funds has turned it into a Frankenstein hell-bent on destroying its creator. The management of the allocated funds should be decentralised to universities. That is, universities should be directly responsible for the distribution of finances to the needy students. This will reduce the red tape that has caused so much frustration with the current system. The loan component of NSFAS should be completely scrapped. In these hard economic times you cannot expect graduates to repay huge loans which they accumulated as students through NSFAS. The very fact that these students are on a bursary on the basis of financial need means that they are poor. Those who are fortunate to get employment after graduation do not earn enough to repay huge debts they have accumulated as students. The government will be forever chasing these students to pay back the money, and very few will do so. Instead of employing consultants to chase graduates who owe, I am told, more than half a billion rand, the government should just scrap the debt and decentralise the management of funding to universities which historically have been managing large funds over many years. The politicians must also realise that they are doing damage to the country by continuing to promise the post-1994 generation free university education. This creates unrealistic expectations among students which ultimately results in the expression of anger that we see in the violent protests bedevilling our campuses. The time has come to implement strategies which will ensure long-term sustainable solutions to the challenges of tertiary education. This may mean demonstrating humility on the part of political leadership by accepting that some university mergers and closures were experiments which went wrong. Leadership should then show political will to reverse these decisions. Maybe the timing is awkward; the political war for the soul of our country has already started, with the elections around the corner. It's unlikely that the current political leadership will take far-reaching decisions in addressing the challenges of universities. Maybe we will see meaningful changes after the elections. In the meantime, frustration and anger will continue to find expression in the form of actions which make universities unstable spaces for teaching and learning. I miss the university students' protests of the 1980s where the rallying cry was "idigli gomso! Inkululeko namhla!" - a degree in the future and freedom now. l Dr Faleni teaches at the School of Educational Sciences at the Vaal Triangle Campus of North-West University . Cape Times

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Source: Cape Times (South Africa)

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