South African students speak out at summit

Few people came more prepared for the higher education stakeholder summit than Sandile Phakathi, president of the South African Union of Students. He said there was no excuse for students who intimidated people or destroyed property during the frequent protests that pepper the academic year, but stressed that change cannot take place without students.

Students across the world resort to demonstrations to press their demands. In South Africa disturbances are common, especially at the start of the academic year, and more often than not these days, they degenerate into violence.

Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, condemned the wanton destruction of property by students as they aired their grievances. "We are not saying no to peaceful protests, but this business of destroying infrastructure, burning furniture is not the way to go," said Nzimande.

Where in the world, the conference was asked, had the destruction of libraries supported development?

But student leaders told the Stakeholder Summit on Higher Education Transformation, held at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology last week, that the rules of engagement could change if the relationship between university authorities and students improved. Students felt they were not respected by university managers or academics.

Phakathi, whose South African Students Union represents all student unions in the country, said managers should be more prepared to listen and take action when students raised issues. Protests were usually driven by universities' failure to engage students even when the situation was not confrontational and there were no big issues at stake.

He said as part of the transformation of universities, students should be provided with training to help them manage their fellow students, contribute more meaningfully to university councils and deal with potential trouble.

A major problem, Phakathi said, was that loans and bursaries awarded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme often did not cover the full costs of higher education and so students - and universities - ended up in debt. "We must create more access to resources, because the majority of students who suffer are black and come from impoverished families."

He also expressed misgivings about the tendency of universities to "rush to raise fees" each time the government provided more money to the scheme, which this year was allocated R1.9 billion (US$0.3 billion) to finance needy students.

"It's sad that some students have become preoccupied with the governance issues at universities, forgetting that their core business is to learn," Phakhati told University World News. He is currently studying for a masters in social policy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

He said higher education transformation should go beyond gender and race. "It must speak to the conscience as well, and it must speak to the generality of people." One of the great successes since 1994 had been South Africa's legislative system, which cemented the state's responsibility towards education. But inequality remained a huge problem.

"Universities in rural communities do not attract renowned academics, which may affect their contribution to society. We are saying, as we forge a new chapter on transformation, that there is no difference between these universities and others in the city, so they must not be excluded."

The issues that have traditionally caused tension between students and authorities have been fee increases, accommodation shortages and the provision of transport.

Phakathi said students were also unhappy about the commoditisation and commercialisation of canteen and other support services, which have been increasingly outsourced. Tender corruption, including by students, has become a problem Nzimande has vowed to crack down on.

Outsourcing, Phakathi agreed, "is breeding corruption. We are saying these services must remain with universities. In some quarters they have led to deterioration of nutritional standards," he added.

A summit commission that deliberated on student problems and aspirations, and on practical solutions to them, heard that students wanted more respect from lecturers and that curriculum renewal was critical.

While there was much fuss about the under-preparedness for university-level learning of students coming out of sub-standard schools, it was actually universities that were under-prepared for the students they admitted, young participants (and some academics) said.

"There is no student who enrolls not expecting to be successful, but the under-preparedness of the system is short-changing a number of students," Phakathi agreed. "We want a closer examination of foundation courses and continuous monitoring of students when they get into the system."

Students also called for dialogue across disciplines to facilitate social cohesion, and commitment to build cadre of young academics.

The main objective of protecting and advancing the interest of students - regardless of race, religion, political affiliation and ideology - was behind the formation of the South African Students Union. With national discussions underway on transformation, students felt, this goal might finally be realised.