Thursday, October 22, 2015

Universities risk their degrees becoming worthless paper, in South Africa. #FeesMustFall #FeesRiots

I was excited, but also somewhat terrified. The buildings at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, glared down upon you as though they hid some secret. Perhaps the answer to death, or the secret of eternal life. Certainly, they seemed to promise wealth, a Midas touch founded upon a scroll of paper called a degree. I'd attended Wits, as a student of the place for the first time, for the entrance exam of my year. I had just recently graduated from Matric. There was doubt in the eyes of the University, as to whether the masses they had accepted were capable of passing University courses. Maybe less than a quarter of us made it through to the end of our degrees, despite the introduction of tutorials and classes on basic computer literacy, and on... studying.

The University was already quite clear about something. We were twice the size of previous groups. Throughout my time at Wits, new buildings cropped up across the myriad campuses. Venues were often not large enough for our classes, resulting in students having to stand rather than sit (I often sat with my laptop on the stairs next to lecture benches), and inevitably we were forced to also have lectures on East Campus. Many of the swiftly-hired, often-foreign lecturers were sub par, and there was always the chance of whatever subject you were taking being cancelled and moved to another year. Students from different classes would swap notes, and rightly so, as some lecturers became known for most of their students failing. I was often certain to get notes from what I thought were the most book smart students in other classes, and it paid off when I landed with the unfortunate black hole known as a fail lecturer - I was not surprised by the unexpected content of exams when I had not been taught a syllabus to pass them.

Lecturers told us that the government was forcing them to double their intake, and to often take on students they wouldn't otherwise accept. They did not believe the schools which students attended were in any way preparing them for University work. The high school I attended, fortunately, put great emphasis on what would be required to graduate university, and on average, many of our marks were about twenty percent higher when we took the IEB exams in Matric, which had been far easier than the in house ones we had taken.

Due to the high failure rates, foundations of South African law, and customary law soon disappeared from the syllabus. A spoon feeding of legal concepts was often adopted, and now the iconic LLB itself has been replaced.

Universities such as Wits rely on subsidies from government, which are consistently falling. They are also almost always under construction as the government has begun to view a degree not as something difficult to achieve and of real worth as an experience, but as a certificate every student must aspire to.

Like producing the Model Ts of Henry Ford, the government believes that if you follow the same process, no matter how many people you push through, you will always get the same results. Unfortunately, many students need something extra that their school education should have but did not provide. They do not receive a quality of education at University to uplift them from the poverty of the laxity of government education standards. Like sardines, they are shepherded to classes, and inevitably burn out: but not without becoming the victim of their student debts.

Like the consistent push to expand the electricity grid, without also pushing to build upon its foundations, the government has insisted on increasing university pass levels without increasing the standards of basic education. The result is both a dumbing down of education, and a scenario where most of the students who enter University will never graduate.

Even if it means that fewer students graduate, Universities should either have higher subsidies, or reduce intake to levels to where they are able to deliver a decent University education. Until the government allows either, we are stuck with the same scenario every year.

Every year I was at Wits, fees were raised, and there were mass and often violent protests, and the students who protested were excluded from campus. For the first time, with the latest fee increase, students have truly mobilized. They are violent, but unusually organized. However, their approaching of parliament and of the ANC is the most appropriate thing they have done yet. If fees are not raised, but subsidies are reduced, then so will the education level of our professional class.

They are South Africa's bare branches: with nothing to lose, but everything to gain. Like so many others, they have taken to the streets, and have adopted the same methods of protest that they have seen on television, and heard about on radio. The violence of the Rhodes Must Fall protests, gained the response they desired. Like a dry run, with an easier objective, student leaders no doubt saw those protests as a proof of concept.

There is a reason protests were able to spread so swiftly from Wits to the rest of the country. Especially in the bone dry economy South Africa currently faces. Lack of a degree in this economy can result in a lifetime of underemployment. Yet, if fees are not raised, and government continues to reduce subsidies, University degrees won't be worth the paper they are published upon.

I still believe that I gained a good knowledge of law when I attended Wits. I bought every one of the expensive text books, and took full advantage of the resources I was provided with.

I also greatly benefitted from English being my first language, while many students struggled to understand often foreign lecturers with strange accents that they could not quite comprehend.

I believe that the current graduating class remains on par. Those who do manage to pass final exams are as proficient as those who always have... but many burn out before that stage, and often these people had great potential. My parents paid for my education. Inevitably, those who like me, did not have to work to afford fees, and who like me were privileged to have attended a top private school, and to have resources to help them at home, were there on graduation day.

For many others, struggling to support themselves as they attended, it was a great and powerful achievement when they walked up to receive their bizarrely shaped degree on graduation day. The problem however, is that a good education costs money, money on all levels. If the government is not prepared to invest on all levels, then inevitably education becomes a commodity, or a sham, a scam to take the few pennies of people who if properly invested in, would surely join the best of our professional class.

Whenever the fees protests happened while I was on campus, the non-participating students had always viewed them as the protestors' last hurrah, a last loud noise before the protestors returned to their previous lives outside of Wits. This year may be different... but only if the government plays their part, and invests a bare minimum of tax money in Universities.

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