Closer to home: Student unrest and the welfare function

South Africa's tertiary education institutions are plagued with apparently endless unrest.

South Africa's tertiary education institutions are plagued with apparently endless unrest. This constitutes a major crisis, not only for those institutions but for the country as a whole: we cannot do without properly functioning universities and technikons.

But the phenomenon is also a puzzle. The government, quite clearly, believes that student struggles had a part to play in the broader liberation struggle of the 1980s but, in the face of continuing unrest, campus trashing and the like, is inclined to say 'it's time to stop such antics now - we must get on and build the country.1 Patently, this has no effect.

There is, in fact, a real question mark over why student unrest continues. No doubt the causes are complex and plural. What we need, I would suggest, is a new 'way of seeing' this phenomenon.

About two decades ago the art critic, John Berger, directed a remarkable television series - later re-worked as a fascinating book - entitled Ways of Seeing. Among other things, Berger drew attention to the way in which the work of the great Dutch masters, including Rembrandt, had hitherto been presented and analysed by conventional art historians. Predictably, much of trie orthodox analysis cantered on issues relating to artistic technique - the use of colour, brush, paint, the portrayal of light and darkness and so on.

What Berger did, however, was go further and emphasise the material and cultural conditions prevailing in the Netherlands at the time - conditions which in another context the historian Simon Schama characterised as constituting 'An embarrassment of riches' - and show how this too shaped Rembrandt's work. By drawing attention to the mercantile success of the Dutch nation and the pivotal role played by men in the guilds, Berger emphasised how, in addition to his inherent artistic genius, Rembrandt's work could not but mirror the economic climate in which he worked.

After Berger, no sensitive observer or art critic could ever again contemplate a gigantic Rembrandt canvas of grouped male portraits without being acutely aware of the fascinating link that exists between 17th Century Dutch economic success and the artistic expression of a golden age.

Borrowing from John Berger's method, let us first examine the conventional political analysis of contemporary student unrest. Let us then revisit the same phenomenon from a slightly different historical and sociological perspective to see whether this does not offer us another 'way of seeing' and understanding contemporary student behaviour which often appears as mindlessly violent as it is poorly directed.

Massification: wave of the future?

The conventional wisdom - which I think holds sway in government circles, in most non-governmental organisations, many development agencies, and among left of centre academics and sections of the English press - runs along the following lines. The problems currently experienced in South African tertiary education are, in the main, a direct consequence of our racially tortured past and more particularly of apartheid and its appalling policies.

To overcome these inequities there is the need, first, for financial redress - redirecting resources away from privileged 'historically white universities' to much neglected 'historically black universities'. Secondly, there is the need to make sure that the state helps right the historic wrongs of Bantu education by rapidly increasing access to an integrated system of tertiary institutions which are themselves simultaneously developing policies to overcome the deficiencies of an appalling secondary schooling system.

The daunting quantitative dimensions of this task are outlined in the government's recent Green Paper on Higher Education Transformation where it is noted that:

"While it endorses the major elements in the case [made by the 1995 National Commission for Higher Education] for a 'massification' of higher education, the ministry believes that the report's suggestion that the participation rate of the 20 to 24 year cohort should be increased from 21% to 30% over the next 10 years (a rise in student numbers from about 800 000 to about 1 500 000 in 2005) should be treated as provisional until more detailed demographic and labour market analyses are available."

In addition to the call for the so-called 'massification' of tertiary education, there is also widespread agreement that the sector should become more firmly rooted in the social, economic and political realities of the continent. In order to do so, institutions of higher learning must manifest greater cultural sensitivity by paying greater attention to the issue of 'Africanisation' which should, in turn, be coupled to a thorough-

going reform of curricula and syllabi.

Furthermore, existing structures of governance that were shaped by the old and discredited order, need to make way for 'models of co-operative governance' which would not only seek to involve a wider range of stakeholders in tertiary education but, by so doing, also deepen and strengthen democratic practice at every level of the system. All of these elements taken together constitute what in the current debate is, quite correctly, characterised as the process ‘of transformation' in higher learning.

At first blush this programme of transformation - which reflects some undeniable political, social and cultural forces at work in contemporary society - has more in it to laud than to lament. It is precisely because of these underlying realities that most of us have come to adopt its ultimate goal as a broadly desirable educational outcome, and come to confine our criticism as not to the ends it seeks to reach, but to the means that are used to achieve it.

For most South African citizens it is not the goal of transformation itself that is at issue, but the questionable means that an often angry and impatient generation of student activists uses to achieve its objectives. But even such public criticism there is, is often muted - more in sorrow than in anger - precisely because the underlying notion is that much of the activity is directed towards a desirable educational outcome.

Thus, most of the criticism is based on the assumption that what we are currently confronted with are simply local manifestations of age old methods of student protests and riot, and that if it were not for the impatience of youth which often takes on anti-social forms and a lamentable shortfall in state financial resources, the instability in South African tertiary education would probably fall within broadly acceptable parameters.

Students, migrancy and the extended family

We may, however, need to abandon these conventional wisdoms and try to see the problems in a slightly different way. In particular we have to examine three propositions that flow from adopting a slightly longer term historical and sociological perspective and a much closer analysis of the forms of the supposedly 'antisocial' behaviour that current student unrest takes.

One, that what we are currently witnessing is not so much a classical manifestation of 'student unrest' released by unrealistic expectations coming in the wake of a largely peaceful and successful political revolution, but an insistent plea for the alleviation of acute rural (and urban) poverty and distress via a youth cohort that is acutely aware of its responsibilities to the extended family, and which senses that it can most readily articulate its demands in educational rather than social terms.

Two, that in accommodating economic demands that seem to come from ordinary students struggling to survive in the tertiary sector, but which in reality derive more from a youth cohort deeply scarred by the ravages of apartheid schooling and poverty, the current government is in danger of confusing its welfare and educational responsibilities to the detriment of both.

Three, that seen in this light, the current disturbances in the tertiary education sector are both less irrational and less 'anti-social' than they seem. Nevertheless, the short term and short sighted accommodation of problems that appear to manifest themselves primarily as 'student' demands, might also hold longer term political and even potentially revolutionary consequences for society as a whole.

These propositions are perhaps easier to accept once we place them in their broader historical and sociological context. In this regard there are two points which South Africans do not reflect on often enough when they debate economic development and social dislocation.

The first of these has to do with the nature of the industrial revolution that we are still experiencing, and an acceptance of the fact that we hardly qualify as an industrialised nation let alone as a 'post-industrial' society. The South African industrial revolution - only some 135 years old and unlike that of, say, Europe - is taking place in a society that has not passed through a protracted feudal period.

Feudalism tended to produce some of the political, social and cognitive structures that have served as precursors to industrialisation elsewhere. But the South African industrial revolution, which was precipitated by primary industry in a colonial context, was built on a foundation of communally held African values which - for better or worse - have long been underwritten by the system of migratory labour.

An unintended consequence of this has been to prolong notions of social commitment to, and responsibility for, the extended black family and to frustrate the emergence of the smaller and more self contained social units that characterise modern first world economies.

Simply put, most of our planners - including those in the field of tertiary education - simply do not take sufficient cognisance of the fact that in South Africa we are more often dealing with extended black families than with the nuclear or single parent families that form the social building blocks that characterise many contemporary first world economies. Black South Africans - including most, but admittedly not all young black South African students - are extremely serious about their social and economic commitments to their grandparents, their parents, and their siblings.

The youth avalanche

It is, moreover, a far more central fact than is often realised that the South African population as a whole has an unusually large number of young people. Our planners simply do not fully appreciate how youthful our population is. Recent statistics show that in 1993 over 37% of our population was younger than 14 years of age, and that it may be reasonably safely assumed that nearly 50% of our population is 20 years old or younger.

When these two additional facts - the preponderance of young people and their social commitment to the extended family - are inserted into a context of acute rural poverty, low economic growth, an unemployment rate of more than 35%, large scale underemployment, and a rapidly changing education system, there are consequences which extend well beyond the mere quantitative dimensions envisaged in the proposed 'massification' of tertiary education. Certain of these problems are already becoming evident in many institutions of higher learning.

Viewed from this perspective it becomes easier to understand why it is that many young black South Africans see access to a college of education, a technikon or a university as assuming an importance that far transcends the intrinsic value that can be attached to a tertiary education qualification per se. And why it is that many are willing literally to fight for the right to enter and stay in the sector regardless of how well or how badly they have been prepared for it by their secondary schooling.

For thousands of black South Africans, access to tertiary education has become the difference between having a roof over your head and being homeless, between being fed for a part of the year or starving, between owning some clothing or being decked out in rags, and between meeting your social commitments by sending home small amounts of cash to your family, or joining the ranks of those who are fully unemployed.

In the absence of universal conscription to the armed forces, significant youth employment schemes or the dole, much of the tertiary education sector becomes, in effect, a sponge which the state - perhaps unwittingly - uses to absorb thousands of unemployed youth who still seethe with a revolutionary anger that derives from the injustices of the recent past.

Higher education's welfare function

The other side of this rather depressing picture is that over the past decade our universities, technikons and colleges of education have had to earmark an ever increasing proportion of their financial resources - which are in any case declining in real terms - for financial aid to needy African students.

These intra-institutional budgetary re-allocations to accommodate an almost insatiable demand for bursaries and loans have produced a set of highly visible outcomes.

Tertiary education institutions first of all cut back on their building and maintenance programmes. This results in physical decay which produces an environment characterised by filth and neglect - conditions which do nothing to diminish the propensity to riot.

The next part of the budget to absorb a cutback is research which, in the hierarchy of educational needs, is perceived by some to be elitist and certainly less important than undergraduate instruction. Finally, the instruction budget Itself is cut back. The consequence is a worsening of staff-student ratios, which in turn results in a further falling off in educational performance, higher failure rates, and a renewed set of complaints about culturally inappropriate or insensitive teaching, the need to use only basic English, and the demand to 'Africanise' ever more rapidly.

The physical decay on most of our campuses is very visible and those who doubt it may quickly enlighten themselves by a quick tour of their neighbouring tertiary institutions. What is often less well understood is just how far advanced this process of earmarking funds for undergraduate bursaries and loans, coupled with declining state subsidies, has eroded the core activities - research and teaching - at some of our leading universities.

I give but two examples. Even at two of our most prestigious 'historically white universities' the amount of funds devoted to bursaries and loans has, over the past five years, outstripped the amounts allocated to research. At Wits, for example, the research budget for 1996 was R20 981 000 while R9 800 000 was allocated to bursaries and loans. In addition, the allocation to Wits students from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme amounted to R 13 138 128.

Imperceptibly, we are thus turning many of our universities, technikons and colleges of education into institutions with a fundamental responsibility for accommodating, feeding, clothing and transporting - as opposed to simply educating - some of the nation's poorest and most underprivileged young citizens.

The point comes home even more starkly when it is learned that at one university in the Western Cape the annual cost of catering, in residences, already exceeds the university's entire research budget. At Wits things have not yet reached that point, but the catering budget in residences now stands at R6 670 000 - much of which is funded through the university's financial aid scheme since many of the students living in catering residences are on financial aid - which is already over two-thirds of the university's research budget of R9 124 000.

it may, of course, be argued that - although not desirable in itself - the increasing assumption of a quasi-welfare role by tertiary education institutions at least helps dedicated, committed and focused students to see through their programmes of instruction without jeopardising their performances or physical well being. Sometimes, but not nearly often enough.

There is already a significant amount of qualitative if not quantitative data which show that many hard pressed black undergraduates divert large proportions of their loans and bursaries to the maintenance of their extended families. This they do by foregoing either their own meals or other needs so that they can make cash remittances to their extended families - a sort of ghostly parody of the migrant labour system in which financial responsibilities devolve upon the village youth rather than upon the village men.

In short, economic necessity dictates that too many of our students from underprivileged backgrounds use bursaries and loans that emanate from either the public or the private sector for purposes other than their own education.

The reality: closer to home

A few illustrative examples should suffice. The dean of students at Wits reports that in dealing with cases of students facing 'financial exclusion', around one in four admits in interview that part of his or her bursary has been spent on meeting social commitments at home. Since students know that such expenditure might be regarded as illegitimate by some, the true figure will certainly not be lower than this and could be higher.

Moreover, the dean reports that similar trends are visible in the rollover loan programme - to help those who have met the minimum requirements to avoid academic exclusion but cannot re-register because of outstanding account balances.

The programme manager reported that between 1993 and 1997 both the number of students and the amounts involved more than doubled. Many students admitted that despite such help and part-time employment, they still could not re-register for the next year because they had to meet financial obligations at home.

Thus in a roundabout way students were borrowing from the university - effectively their banker at preferential rates of credit - to support families at home. Sometimes this happens simply because students are holders of ready cash at opportune moments and are asked to lend to family members -and later such 'loans' prove to be unrepayable.

But the dean of students also reports that at least one in three of the students he interviews claim that they cannot leave residence because they cannot now accept going back to live in small rooms which they share with multiple siblings. This is particularly true of students in self-catering units. It is not just that to such students their residence room is their home: they are also relieving pressure on their family's housing and, often, providing accommodation for family members arriving in Johannesburg to look for work.

Bread and butter issues such as bursaries

To which one might add two further illustrative examples: one drawn from the realm of personal experience and very close to home, and the other structural, drawn from The National Teacher Education Audit - a report for the department of education sponsored by the Danish International Development Agency in 1995.

The new vice chancellor of the University of Cape Town, Professor Mamphela Ramphele, addressing the Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Trust last year, started her talk by noting how she had been the recipient of an Ernest Oppenheimer Memorial Award while she was a student at the Natal Medical School from 1968 to 1972. There can be no doubt about Ramphele's ability to focus on her studies, and hers is an undoubted success story. But she also went on to say:

That bursary award made it possible for me to support my mother and siblings during the very difficult period following my father's death in 1967. It was a modest amount by today's standards, but it made an enormous difference to my life and that of my widowed mother".

A clearer example of the hidden linkage between bursary use and rural poverty would be hard to find.

Secondly, Rosamund Jaff, Michael Rice, Jane Hofmeyr and Graham Hall, authors of the National Education Teacher Audit, detected some of the horrid welfare-bursary-alienation malaise that plagues many colleges of education, which are often situated in remote rural areas beset by high unemployment rates, when they noted that:

"The most disturbing finding in the audit of the college sector was the large proportion of students who are not committed to teaching and merely want a tertiary qualification as a means to further study or a job outside teaching... Generally, students showed little awareness of and interest in wider educational and societal issues outside political flash points and bread and butter issues such as bursaries."

It would seem from this and other evidence that important parts of the education sector have already come to assume as much of a quasi-welfare as an educational role in our low growth economy.

Put another way, it would seem that for many of our poorest and least prepared undergraduate students, the short term economic imperative of gaining entry into the post-apartheid tertiary education sector has become at least as important as the longer term educational objective. Moreover, this process is often most advanced in the least developed parts of our tertiary education system - in our 'historically black' universities, technikons and colleges.

The economic imperative

Once it is conceded that there is frequently as much of an economic imperative as an educational objective in -seeking entry into the tertiary sector it becomes easier to understand student behaviour and militancy. Admission to, or exclusion from, an institution of higher learning often involves - quite literally - the difference between life and death for the poorest of poor black students and their families.

Academic progress alone ensures continued access to a bursary or a loan and, like the removal or reduction of the dole in more developed societies, has consequences that extend well beyond the confines of certification or graduation.

Seen from this perspective it is easier to understand why it is that the process of student admission and re-admission is so often accompanied by violence. Why there is a populist tendency to exert pressure downward on academic standards (pass one, pass all), and why all exclusionary processes - but more especially those involving so-called 'financial exclusions' - are vulnerable to challenge by riot.

Nor is it surprising that amidst so much apparently mindless student rioting, canteens and kitchens should become such frequent and specific objects of attack and looting: what one is seeing is the spectre of medieval bread riots rather than modern manifestations of student unrest.

In these struggles one hears much of the 'worker-student alliance' on campus, which generally means a concerted Nehawu-Sasco front. This is now easily accepted as an ordinary feature of campus life when in fact it is not: try getting trade unions and student associations to concert in this way on, say, British or American campuses and you will see that such alliances are not unproblematic.

But in South Africa campus cleaners, cooks, security guards, janitors and lab assistants are often merely older generation migrants to the city, coming from many of the same rural and small town communities that their slightly younger brothers, sisters and cousins have come from to enrol as students. One can often find a real sociological basis for such alliances in precisely the same considerations of migrancy and the extended family that do much to explain the character of campus struggles.

Against a background in which the quasi-welfare function of the tertiary sector and the hidden class struggle of our most economically deprived citizens and voters continues to be poorly understood by the state and an increasingly urbanised middle-class public, the government's proposal to give priority to the 'massification' of tertiary education over a better integrated but significantly diverse system of higher learning, is alarming.

As the French and many other governments in Europe discovered to their cost in 1968, systems of tertiary education that neglect their core functions of teaching and research can, in the fullness of time, come to exact an awful price from society.

South Africa's government needs urgently to think again about how it intends to incorporate its newly enfranchised, unsettled and predominantly youthful population. In particular, it needs to give careful thought to where it wishes to draw the line between the right of access to tertiary education for adequately prepared scholars and the legitimate social welfare needs of its rural (and urban) poor.

Failure to distinguish clearly between these competing demands could bring about a dramatic increase in the number of poorly educated unemployed graduates in an economy characterised by a high degree of unionisation and low economic growth. It is a mixture that has created a painful history of political instability in, among other places, post-colonial West Africa.

If one takes such factors into account, campus disputes can no longer be reduced to a question of whether one is for or against 'transformation', or indeed for or against any of the above processes - that would be simplistic and would in any case not work. We have to understand things as they really are if we are to have any chance of accommodating or managing - let alone changing - them.