This is the first of three briefs on the unrest in universities. It deals with its extent and costs. The second deals with the economic and fiscal context within which university and student financing has to be considered. The third deals with prospects for resolution.
In 1856, a young woman started to prophesy at the mouth of the Gxara River in the Eastern Cape.  She claimed that the spirits had told her that the Xhosa people should destroy their crops and kill their cattle.  The dead of the Xhosa nation would rise again, bringing with them more beautiful and healthier cattle, and everything they could wish for to eat.  The facts of what happened next are in some dispute and their interpretation is controversial, but the following is clear: (1) this was the start of a millenarian movement, given powerful impetus by the King of the Xhosa[1] (2) there were believers and unbelievers (3) the believers deliberately undermined their food security, already compromised by cattle disease and a poor harvest in 1855 and (4) as a result there was widespread death by starvation in 1857.


As is well known, there have been student protests about university fees in 2015 and 2016.  As a result, the government has intervened twice.  In 2015, it supplied funds to the universities so they could announce a zero per cent increase in fees for 2016.  These funds would have to be supplied in all succeeding years, and would eventually form part of the block grant which government makes to universities On 19 September 2016, the Minister of Higher Education announced that the government would make a further subvention, subsidising fee increases by up to 8% (an implicit cap on fee increases) for all students coming from households earning less than R 600 000 per annum.  

The costs of confrontation

This announcement was not sufficient to avoid extensive disruption and closures of universities by students demanding free, quality and decolonised higher education now.  Figure 1 sets out our best estimate of what has happened in each university.  An accompanying spreadsheet sets out the details (click here).  
Figure 1A - University closures, 12 September to 28 October 2016
Figure 1B - University closures, 12 September to 28 October 2016
Disruption was most intense between 26th September and 13th October. 
The quality of teaching and learning has been degraded.  Some universities have posted instructional material online, but there will be difficulties of access for many students.   Universities have postponed examinations, and even then, it is not clear how these will be conducted without disruption.  There is widespread anxiety about the gaining of credits, the ability to graduate and acceptance of new students.
Disruption of the normal academic cycle is not the only cost of the confrontation.  Two people have died in the process: a worker at the University of the Witwatersrand as a result of a fire extinguisher being used in a confined space, and a student at Tshwane University of Technology, run over by a car during street action.   Many have been injured, some as a result of inept police intervention since 22 September.  
Damage to property has been extensive.  On 27 September, Universities South Africa released an estimate of R 600 million for damage done to universities in the past year.  On 29 September, the Mail and Guardian estimated that R 460 million’s worth of damage had been done to universities.  There has been substantial further damage since then.  
Injuries can be survived and property restored.  The lasting damage will be to the human capital of the public universities.  This will take two forms.  The first is a haemorrhage of academic staff, particularly of the best qualified and those with the best reputations. This is exacerbated by pessimistic expectations, with little prospect of replacement by new employees of equal quality.  The second is a migration of students to the private higher education sector.  The private sector can do only so much.  Academic quality control is not of the best in some of its institutions.  More seriously, private higher education most easily offers instruction in fields which do not require much investment beyond class rooms and standard teaching aids.  Investment in laboratories, workshops and studios is harder for it to do, and recurrent costs are high in fields such as architecture, engineering, agriculture, fine and performing arts, medicine, and life and physical sciences, all heavily subsidised by the government in public universities.

State failure

State failure has been extensive in the field of higher education, contributing to the current situation.  It was evident to the Council on Higher Education’s twenty year review in 2013-14 that the system was heading for a train smash, both in respect of university and student financing, assuming a sustained economic growth rate of 3.5%.  In any event, the average rate of growth between 2013 and 2016 has been 1.3% according to IMF estimates.  This low rate of growth has not stopped enrolments from growing at an average rate of more than 4% over the period 2013 to 2016.  The burden of dealing with the situation has been passed around between the Department of Higher Education, the Treasury and the universities for several years in a game of musical chairs which is still in progress.  Two emergency allocations to the universities decided upon in November 2015 and September 2016 have violated the assumptions of the Medium Term Expenditure Framework as it pertains to universities, leading to lack of credibility of any estimates.  
Moreover , the response of the government to the crisis has been slow.  The Heher Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training, originally required to report by October 2016 has had its deadline extended to June 2017.  In respect of student financing, The Mail and Guardian reported on 20 October 2016 that:
Sizwe Nxasana, the chairperson of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, confirmed that a pilot project will be launched next year to provide financial assistance to “missing middle” students.  Nxasana, who is also the chairperson of the ministerial task team responsible for investigating a comprehensive funding model for poor and “missing middle” students, said those chosen for the pilot scheme would receive an average of about R100 000 a year to cover the full cost of their study. He declined to divulge the amount that had been collected so far for the project. “It’s difficult to say how many students we will fund [for the pilot] because we only started fund-raising a couple of weeks ago. There’s still a long way to go.”
The government has been urged to hurry up, but it is far from clear how it can.  In the meantime, repression remains the only arrow in the quiver and it becomes the default option, whether intended or not.  It was reported on News24 on 28 October that 831 students has been arrested since 1 February 2016[2]  as of 28 October 2016) 
For now, there is a great deal of agitation, but a lack of means for resolution of the problem.
Charles Simkins
Head of Research
Anele Mtwesi

[1]  Of course, this was not the only millenarian movement in world history.  For a classic study of Europe, see Norman Cohn, The pursuit of the millennium: revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages, expanded edition, 1970