In recent weeks the highly publicized and controversial South African “#feesmustfall” protest reached a peak with widely reported incidents of students facing off with police and school leaders at multiple campuses across South Africa. There have been reports of students being arrested, shot by rubber bullets, teargassed and beaten.
Many of the prestigious African academic institutions have failed to contain the unrest caused by the protests leading to lectures being called off as campuses have been deemed unsafe for both academic staff and students, these include UCT, WITS, UKZN, NMMU, UP to name but a few.
So what has caused the protests?
This is the second year running of the #feesmustfall movement. Sometime late last year the South African Government greenlighted an increase in tuition of 10.5% for the 2016 academic year which sparked outrage from student bodies across SA leading to widespread protests forcing their government to freeze any tuition increase for 2016. But in a surprising turn of events, the SA government recently greenlighted a fee increase of 8% for the 2017 academic year, hence the new wave of protests that have
What do the students want?
The #feesmustfall movement is advocating for “free, quality and decolonised education”. According to a report by BBC, students are fighting against a system that discriminates black students who come from poor families robbing them of opportunities to study and pursue formal careers. The movement wants free education for all starting with the poor and “missing middle class” a section of a growing population in African where parents have jobs but cannot afford tertiary education.
What the Universities have been forced to consider
With the calendar academic year in SA closely coming to an end the protests have caused up to a month of disruptions of lectures and learning. The Universities have continuously reiterated their stance on lectures having to commence with students asked to attend lectures this past Monday but that only escalated the protests with the VC of UCT on the receiving end of a few punches whilst attempting to address a group of students on the need to resume lectures.
The Universities have been caught between a rock and a hard place. There is a need for the academic year to be concluded but then there is the element of unsafe campuses for both students and lecturers. The only option the “brick and mortar” Universities have left is to adopt e-learning solutions effectively making students distance learners.
However, even this has been disputed by student bodies as they feel it is a solution only catered for a minority of students who can actually afford the internet or have access to devices (laptops, smartphones, tablets etc) to effectively engage with coursework.
The SA Univerisity may be forced to develop an e-learning strategy despite the issues presented as they may be at fault in a case of “if the option was there why didn’t you pursue it”. E-Learning is not easy, look at UNISA Africa’s largest distance learning institute who after years of providing e-learning are still trying to get it right. The University of Pretoria has offered students free access to the University web page via public wifi hotspot Tshwane Wi-Fi, AlwaysOn and Telkom.
Effect on University Ranking
The protest movement, which spread like wildfire over social media like all other movements these days, has caused so much disruption SA Universities have seen dramatic drops in world rankings. Between 2015 and 2016 UCT fell 20 places from #171 to #191, WITS fell 28 places from #331 to #359, Rhode’s University fell 50 places from #501 to #551 and UKZN fell a shocking 100 places from #551 to #651.
With the way, the protests have continuously escalated and Government refusing to budge on its proposed 8% hike in tuition we may see the protests spill into much of the 2017 academic calendar. With a fair number of Zimbabweans registered all over SA Universities, one can only wonder what impact this is having on all foreign students. The SA Universities are slowly losing appeal as anyone who has been to a tertiary institution can confirm a month of lectures lost is a disaster to your semester.
The Universities have to find a solution and find it fast. The Government may be forced to sit down and listen to the demands of student bodies, otherwise the access to education issue is something that will continue to cause disruptions unless a lasting solution is found.