When empathy is needed, Nzimande offers scorn
The funding of our higher education system is one of the most emotive subjects in society today. Only this month, Mthokozisi Ntumba, a passer-by, was shot and killed by police during a student protest in Johannesburg. Funding is a contentious issue for two reasons. First, many young people rightly see a higher qualification as the gateway to escape poverty and build a better life for themselves and their families. So for them, denial of access due to financial constraints represents the crushing of a lifelong dream. Second, the funding system meant to assist needy and qualifying students — the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) — has proven to be inadequate as it does not cover those in “the missing middle” — students whose families earn too much to qualify for the scheme and yet not enough to afford the high cost of our universities.
It is precisely the failure to find solutions for this “missing middle” that has resulted in students going on strike at the beginning of every financial year despite the government improving its financial contribution to the NSFAS over the past decade.
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande has the difficult task of finding a solution that has proven elusive for the government and tertiary institutions over the years. In this mission, he’ll need the support and the buy-in of all higher education stakeholders — especially the students.
Yet the minister has a way of alienating potential partners and shooting himself in the foot. His ill-advised reference to annual student protests as being “like a soapie now, The Bold and the Beautiful ...” was reckless and displayed a lack of empathy for the affected students. It has the potential of adding fuel to the fire at a time when the higher education ministry should be leading all the key stakeholders to the negotiating table in search of a lasting solution to the university funding issue. Nzimande cannot successfully play this role without watching his tongue.
It behoves the minister to know that in times of controversy and conflict what is needed are cool and responsible heads. Not reckless outbursts from those supposedly in charge.