As soon as the higher levels of lockdown proper ended for the University of Cape Town, the campus renewed its vintage 2015 protests and shutdown many of the university functions. This includes blocking entrances to campus, shutting down the shuttle service, and even protesting online classes by disrupting the lecturer online.
This is all over students who have been allegedly “excluded” due to being unable to pay their fees; and is being led by the Student Representative Council.
As was the case in 2015, when students protested for free education, this protest is similarly ill-thought out. Fees pay for the maintenance of the university; lecturers can’t work for free, course readers don’t print themselves, and there are hundreds, if not thousands, of staff that rely on fees to put food on their own tables for themselves and their families.
At the core of the protests is an almost narcissistic and clearly thoughtless ideological compulsion to protest for the impossible. It all arises from a simple problem with the South African tertiary education system.
Universities are not perceived or run like businesses, and this skews the incentives and perceptions of both the people running the universities and the students attending them.
‘University education’ has come to be seen as a public good in South Africa; a public good simultaneously run and funded by the state, while also maintained by private capital and interests. It’s a gross and chaotic muddle that leads to campuses being shut down, degrees becoming worthless, and the damage of countless Rands worth of property.
Students are simultaneously customers and subjects of a university, beholden to the university’s often petty practices and impossible tasks (such as finishing assignments that require library access while the library is on fire) - while also paying the university cash.
This relationship is worsened by the general culture of education in South Africa, whereby people are convinced from a young age that ‘university’ is the only path to success. And, on an institutional level, this is made even worse by the fact that the traditional provider of all this tertiary education is, at one level or another, the government.
The solution to university education
This situation can be remedied through practical, low-hanging reform: Treat universities like businesses. Realise that they cost money to run. Realise that students who pay are valuable clients who shouldn’t be beholden to arbitrary deadlines and course requirements so long as they are paying and achieving a relevant and realistic standard.
But most of all, this begins with getting the government as far away from tertiary education as possible. Remove the corrupting influence of public coffers, and universities will have to innovate, reinvent themselves, and serve students properly.
No university should be shut down by a bunch of ideologues protesting because they want a product to be ‘free.’ It would be ludicrous to protest that Pick N Pay provide groceries for free, and that could be argued to be a basic need. It should be even more ludicrous to expect a university to give its services to those who cannot pay and haven’t qualified for financial aid. Further, anything that is provided for ‘free’ by government will inevitably need to be paid for by someone else – in this case, the taxpayer.
Government needs to step back and allow universities to set their curricula without fear or favour. The success of a university should be based purely on the funding it can gain itself through attracting fee-paying students, donations, and other forms of private fundraising.
Remove the incentive to beg the state for money, and universities will become more virtuous, more responsible, and more inventive.
Moreover, it should be as easy to start a private university or college as it is to open a spaza shop. The state isn’t protecting anyone by restricting the founding of private tertiary education. All it accomplishes is the artificial strangling of possible professionals.
Imagine if we had hundreds of private nursing colleges, training a generation of skilled nurses. Hospitals and clinics would be able to hold these colleges accountable, only employing nurses from colleges with a good track record. After all, history has shown us that the market can do a far better job than a random bureaucrat.
Private hospitals which already exist could setup their own medical training facilities. Trade colleges could pop up overnight. Demand could truly inform supply. Rather than a bunch of state-mandated training facilities and stringently operated (and often publicly disrespected) private colleges, we could have countless universities competing energetically to deliver the best education to the most amount of people.
And best of all – they would be truly serving the needs of their customers. This would remove the incentive and desperation to protest. There is no justification in protesting a business; one can simply voluntarily choose not to use them.
While universities exist in this weird state of being semi-public, they become fair game for ideologues to wage their political wars and protests. And while they attempt to implement their political whims, the truly industrious and creative suffer. But not for long, if universities finally embrace the free market.
Nicholas Woode-Smith is an author and economic historian from Cape Town. His work includes fiction novels about magical beasts battling in South Africa's underworld to in-depth analyses of politics, economic and the history of this country and the world. The views expressed in the article are the author’s and not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.