Convocation Comments: #FeesMustFall and how UJ plans to make higher education more accessible
The recent #FeesMustFall protests that swept through the country's universities not only succeeded in halting the proposed fee increases for 2016, but also raised the issue of the exclusionary nature of high tertiary institution costs. UJ Convocation President Mbali Mkhonto shared some insights into some causes of and solutions to the problem.
"As the UJ Convocation, we believe education is the only tool available at our disposal to help young people position themselves better in society," says Mkhonto. Access to higher education has always been a hot-button topic, especially in a country with long-entrenched wealth inequality like South Africa. Unfortunately, the costs of running a world-class institution cannot be taken lightly, and money from fees and bequests can only stretch so far. It has been argued that the current government financial allocation to universities is not sufficient to close the shortfall – it would take almost R36 billion, in comparison to the current R22 billion, to ensure that the country's universities will be able to maintain a standard of excellence and proper functioning. In order to close the gap, universities must increase their fees year on year, with the unfortunate result of denying access to those who cannot afford them. This tension is what sparked the #FeesMustFall protests.
Speaking about the protests, Mkhonto said, "We have noted with great concern the behaviour of some external forces that have imposed themselves as genuine representatives of the workers and students. These external forces have deliberately made it almost impossible for management, workers and students to find amicable solutions. The sad part is that while these workers and students continue with their demonstrations, their impact is being diluted by these external forces." It is only by students, workers and management engaging openly and with realistic expectation that a true, lasting resolution can be reached.
As a result of the protests, fees will not be increased in 2016 for the University. However, as Mkhonto notes, "we are mindful, as Convocation, that the adjustment means an additional burden to the university". Nevertheless, the UJ Convocation and the university management are committed to addressing the needs of students, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. "The UJ Convocation welcomes the decision taken by the university management, particularly the office of the Vice-Chancellor, Prof Rensburg, and applauds his willingness to engage. [As a result,] the university has found perhaps a lasting solution to this long-term problem that cannot be ignored."
The Office of the President of Convocation, in partnership with the Office of the Vice-Chancellor, will be launching an "Each One Teach One" fundraising campaign. The campaign will give alumni the opportunity to offer financial assistance to those who are following in their footsteps, not only to assist with paying for their studies but also to cover registration costs, textbooks and food. In this way, we will be able to close the gap and make a tertiary education available to those who would otherwise be excluded. This goal will, however, only be able to become a reality when the university's alumni community takes ownership of the situation and acknowledge their responsibility to support the next generation.