Daily Dispatch

Daily Dispatch

Checkmate looms in varsity wars


WHAT is the real endgame in the university fee protests? The demand appears to be a “free, quality and decolonise­d higher education” now. It is not up for debate and there seems no room for compromise.

This demand has been largely directed at universiti­es, which – even if they wanted to accede – would never be in a financial position to do so. So what is the endgame?

Public universiti­es have two main sources of funding: government and fees. If fees fall away they have to look to government to make up the difference.

Government came to the party last year and funded a 0% fee increase – which cost it an estimated additional R2.3–billion. It has become crystal clear that, like universiti­es, government is simply not in a position to fund an across-the-board free higher education for all. But then again, why should it fund those who have the means to pay their way. It is an unreasonab­le demand. So what is the endgame?

The parliament­ary budget office says it would take at least a quarter of the country's GDP to pay for a free higher education for all. In real terms the state would have to come up with an extra R250billio­n to pay for all undergradu­ate enrolments over the next three years. In a country with chronic poverty, unemployme­nt and inequality, how would Treasury re-prioritise? So what is the endgame?

At long last, a feasible model to fund the poor and “missing middle” in higher education is reportedly on its way to Cabinet.

NSFAS chair Sizwe Nxasana says it is possible to offer fully subsidised education to the very poor and to subsidise accommodat­ion and loans on a sliding scale to others. This is a major admission and concession. But the response has been escalating protest. So what is the endgame?

There are increasing reports of assault, intimidati­on, arson and destructio­n of scarce university infrastruc­ture and resources across all campuses. Faced with an escalating bill for damage – which last month stood at R600-million – police and university security have also upped the ante. About 600 people have been arrested to date and police are using increasing­ly angry tactics to quell protest. So what is the endgame? Vice Chancellor­s are caught between a rock and a hard place of expectatio­n. Protesters demand the shutdown of universiti­es. Other students demand campuses remain open. Fee payers are threatenin­g to sue universiti­es for breach of contract. It is demanded of VCs that they find ways to protect those wanting to go back to lectures while others slam them for the securitisa­tion of campuses.

Some are demanding protesters face the consequenc­es of their actions. Protesters want a blanket amnesty. But they offer nothing in return. The protest will continue and the academic project will not. So what is the endgame?

The protesters have already won enormous ground. The groundwork has been laid for a free higher education for the poor. The conclusion of the academic year is looming and the space for manoeuvre has narrowed. If universiti­es shut their doors, as seems possible, the curtain also comes down on the protesters’ stage.

A checkmate is looming. It is time to declare the endgame.

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