By Dylan Barry, a post-grad physics student at the University of the Witwatersrand. Dylan headed up the #FeesMustFall News Media task team in 2015, and the #FeesMustFall Economic Research task team in 2016 at the University of the Witwatersrand.
On October 14th, 2015, students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in Johannesburg, South Africa, began blockading the entrances into the main campus of the university. Groups split off to disrupt lectures, laboratories, and test sessions across the campus. At around midday university management sent out a communication cancelling all further academic activity for the day.
The protest was organised and coordinated by the Wits Student Representative Council (SRC) in response to a proposed 10.5% tuition fee increase for the year 2016. It followed on from a significant and well-organised protest two weeks prior against the outsourcing of workers at the university, and a year of heightening tensions around access to higher education.
The protests continued the next day, and the day after that. Students around the country rallied around the hashtag #FeesMustFall, consolidating the demand for no fee increases, an end to the practice of outsourcing, and the realisation of a fee-free higher education system in South Africa. On the Monday universities across the country began to be shut down by student protests, and by Wednesday, just a week after students first started blocking entrances at Wits, almost every university campus in the country was shut down by student protests.
Students from higher education institutions in Johannesburg marched on Luthuli House, the headquarters of the ruling African National Congress (ANC). Students from higher education institutions in Cape Town marched on the South African parliament, where they were met with riot-police, truncheons, stun grenades, and rubber bullets. On Friday October 23th more than 10,000 students from higher education institutions across Gauteng, the province that contains both Johannesburg and Pretoria, marched on the Union buildings, the seat of the executive branch of the South African government.
After hours of stand off and confrontation with the police, the President announced that the state would commit to increase its university subsidy so that no students would experience tuition fee increases for the year 2016. Additionally the state would set up a Commission of Inquiry tasked with investigating the feasibility of a fee-free higher education system in South Africa, to report back in mid-2016. In just 10 days the relationship between students and South African society at large had been turned on its head. The #FeesMustFall protests had become the largest protests in South Africa since the end of Apartheid, and the country could no longer ignore what was, and remains, a national higher education crisis.
The GEM Report’s new paper shows that governments worldwide have been failing to keep pace with the rapid expansion of higher education, leaving households increasingly footing the bill, and South Africa has been no different. Between the year 2000 and today, reflecting the global trend, the number of students in the South African higher education system has roughly doubled, from around 500 000 students in 2000 to around a million today. This increase is a dividend of democracy, but it has not been paralleled by an increase in the number of higher education institutions, leaving significant pressure on university resources and infrastructure.
In the same period the state’s subsidy contribution to higher education increased in absolute terms, but has not in any way kept up with the rapid growth in enrolment and the associated costs to the system. In the year 2000, the state subsidised just under 50% of the cost of the South African higher education system, but by 2014 that had dropped to just 38%, a funding shortfall that has been passed on almost entirely to students through tuition fee increases. Some institutions have seen their average full cost of study more than triple.
These significant challenges have been compounded by the failures of South Africa’s public student loan system, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which has been persistently underfunded and consistently leaves students in the lurch. However, perhaps the most significant failure of the system relates to the students it systemically excludes. The income cut-off at which a student is no longer eligible for NSFAS funding is R122 000 in family income per annum. This is so low that it has created a significant body of potential students, known as the “missing middle”, who are both considered too “rich” to receive a NSFAS loan but are in reality too poor to fund university tuition without support.
These issues play out on the broader canvas of South African society, a society with the highest levels of income inequality of any major economy in the world, with systemically high levels of poverty and unemployment, and still grappling with the entrenched legacies of Apartheid. The overlap between race and socioeconomic status in South Africa remains stark, and the students who bear the brunt of the system’s failures remain overwhelmingly African. In contrast most white students do not face nearly the same socioeconomic barriers to entry, with around ½ of white South Africans attending university compared to only around ⅙ of African and Coloured South Africans, according to the new GEM Report paper. The system consequently reinforces the societal structures we as a country are trying so hard to break down.
It was for these reasons that I became involved in student politics, initially volunteering on the Wits SRC’s #OneMillionOneMonth campaign in response to the NSFAS funding crisis in early 2015. That campaign exposed me to the havoc that exclusion on financial grounds wreaks in the lives of affected students, students left stranded in the middle of their studies, many the first in their families to access university.
By October I had been swept up in a support role in the initial organisation of the protests at Wits. I was given the opportunity to head up the Wits News Media task team for the Wits SRC as well as work on medical response and first-aid during the demonstrations – in the process suffering pepper spray to the face, assault by private security and 2nd degree burns from tear gas canisters fired by riot police.
The #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 were an undeniable victory for students, but the subsequent failure of the state to adequately address the higher education crisis precipitated a second round of #FeesMustFall protests through September and October 2016. The ambiguous gains, the intensity and brutality of repression that students were exposed to, and the internal divisions that 2016 exposed, mean that predicting what will happen in 2017 is a fool’s errand. However, the last two years of student protest have demonstrated that, until the state can find meaningful ways of ensuring that socioeconomic status does not remain a significant barrier to access to higher education, student unrest is likely to become a feature of South Africa’s university campuses for the foreseeable future.