It might already be too late. The insistent disruption and violence visited on campuses around the country, with no end in sight, will probably change the face of higher education in South Africa forever. Here are the reasons.
The top universities, many of them built up steadily over a century, came to be leading institutions of higher learning through world-class research, innovative teaching and external reach, through, for example, school change and health improvement projects in the community.
They were able to attract leading scholars to make their academic careers on the southern tip of the continent. Through external investments and increasing government support these universities were able to build an expansive infrastructure for residences, laboratories, computer labs, library holdings and large lecture halls to keep pace with growing student enrolments. Pupils from top schools and outstanding achievers from disadvantaged schools make these universities their first choice.
But, make no mistake, these universities are vulnerable ecologies. What was built up over a century can be destroyed within months. To begin with, the wanton destruction of property and the threat to safety and stability immediately has an impact on donor attention; several of our targeted universities will tell you that big donors, that critical source of what is called third-stream income (tuition and subsidy being the other two), have started to withdraw their money.
The now regular sight of burning campus buses, administration buildings, student residences, art works, the destruction of campus symbols whether progressive or not, and lecture halls dosed in human excrement, horrifies parents and students, but also those whose funding makes the difference between mediocre universities and places of excellence.
Then the dramatic fall in the value of the rand devastates the capacity of libraries to retain their top journals, especially in the sciences, let alone to purchase new journals entering the academic marketplace. What this means is that librarians become jittery — this is their bread and butter, the ability to bring knowledge sources to the keypads of their scholars.
University leadership now finds itself drawn away from the task of competing for national and international recruitment of scholars, students and resources to simply secure the safety of staff, students and facilities on a daily basis.
However, the financial straw that is breaking the academic camel‘s back is government funding. There is every indication in the recent Budget speech of Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan that we are back where the crisis started last year with the #FeesMustFall movement. The student politics of the present will not tolerate a fee increase next year or any time in the foreseeable future; that is the one problem. The government capacity to make up the gap between a 0% fee increase and what universities need to function remains even more limited than in previous years. Which means universities will again be called on to find R300-million from sharply declining revenues as more top institutions slide towards survival status and, eventually, bankruptcy.
Anyone who believes the presidential commission examining the crisis in university funding will pull a rabbit out of the hat has clearly not taken a hard look at the state of the economy and the state of politics in South Africa today.
Here‘s the rub. A top university‘s national and international reputation depends on no more than a dozen or so leading academics. These scholars draw the best talent for doctoral and post-doctoral studies, raise millions in funding for research, bring global peers from around the world to campus, and teach students at the cutting-edge of the disciplines. There‘s just one problem. These are the academics who have options, they can leave and would be welcomed at any university in the world.
When your top scholars feel unsafe, have to cancel international conferences because of instability on campus, and cannot be guaranteed quiet spaces for intellectual contemplation and scholarly writing, then they leave. And what we will be left with is our low-level training colleges rather than leading universities.
There is a reason this new brand of protests has identified our leading universities. The idea for some of the most dangerous protesters is to raze to the ground these prized institutions of higher learning until all 26 public universities are indistinguishable in their academic capacities or ambitions.
Many of these protests never were about “transformation” — that is why the demands are constantly shifting from one day to the next, and are very different from one university to another. And the violent protesters could not have chosen more vulnerable institutions than universities to cause lasting damage to sites of learning that could lift millions out of poverty with a first degree in the family.
There is only one way to stop the rot. When ordinary South Africans appreciate the importance of universities in our future, stand up as one and say loudly and clearly: “Enough is enough.”