Uprising in Higher Education Institutions takes on deepening Inequality

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Growing inequality and poverty in the post-apartheid era has triggered a series of protests over fees and outsourcing. The movement, which has taken on the banner of Fees Must Fall, was preceded by the Rhodes Must Fall movement and protests over a government bursary known as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). The latter centred on Technical, Vocational Education and Training Institutions with predominantly black poor working class students. Facing police brutality on regular basis, they had been largely ignored until this recent nationwide uprising of student protests sparked in Universities.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world. In 2008, the top 5% of South Africans earned 43% of the total income. Towards the end of apartheid, the top 5% earned 38% of the total income. Twelve million South Africans are said to live below the poverty line. Thirteen million go to bed hungry in this country. The Fees Must Fall and End Outsourcing Now movements have highlighted inequality between and within South African universities.

In worse cases, they are still operating within apartheid era regulations and practices with clear racial segmentation (if not segregation) among staff and even students. The unevenness between higher education institutions has also been drawn into focus.

The brutal manner in which police repress predominantly black and working-class students has deepened awareness of this. In some cases, students had to be protected by human shields of staff who were predominantly white highlighting once more how little black lives matter in post-apartheid South Africa. A rallying call for decolonisation emphasises on the need for systemic change in higher education.

Decolonisation has particular significance in this era which is marked by the commodification of higher education institutions and where there is a growing outsourcing of services such as cleaning. Outsourcing has increased the number of precarious workers, majority of whom are women, do not have job security and earn a poverty wage. Outsourcing has also created a “totalitarian workplace” in which racist supervisors continually abuse workers and disregard their rights as working people.

Trade unions have also been shaken by the movement. Even though unions have raised concerns around outsourcing services and labour brokers, this was superficial. Instead, unions even undermined workers protesting against outsourcing. In contrast, the student and worker movement has fought back with blood, sweat and tears. Facing brutality from police and private security, one woman worker described this as a ‘women’s Marikana’.

A three-week wild cat strike at the University of Johannesburg, led primarily by women, saw the main union, National Health Education and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU), attempt to break the strike. They were unanimously rejected. Towards the end of the strike, NEHAWU shop stewards attempted to have workers sign away their right to protest or strike in the University. Women workers tore up agreement forms. Insourcing has been agreed to in principle in some universities, but victimisation of workers has already begun.

The Pretoria march on October 22 to the Union buildings was a historic day in South Africa. It was the largest protest by students (and workers in solidarity with the students). This march forced Zuma to announce 0% fee increase for 2016 academic year. The decision represented an important, yet limited victory for the Fees Must Fall Movement. The movement had already taken up a bigger demand for free education now!

Moreover, one obvious limitation with 0% increase is that this covers only next year. Moreover, students can barely cover existing fees. This means that in spite of this 0% fee increase, poor working-class students without adequate financial resources will face financial exclusion next year.

Parents and students are also face mounting debt when they cannot pay fees. Universities actually impose interest on unpaid fees and block students from viewing their academic results thereby preventing them from applying for bursaries or scholarships. Most students can barely afford registration fees. Only 5% of South African families can comfortably afford to pay university fees for their children.

Meanwhile, South Africa has one of the highest rates of public investment in education in the world. About 7% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 20% of total state expenditure is spent on education…more than any other sector. Nonetheless, government subsidy on higher education has decreased from 49% to 40%, while the contribution from student fees has risen from 24% to 31%. From 2000-2012, government grants to Universities fell from 88% to 72% while specific grants for NSFAS doubled, from 7% to 14%. NSFAS, which is supposed to be a bursary, actually functions as a loan for most students and earns interest imposing a debt burden especially on the unemployed. Regardless, many still do not even receive NSFAS funding.

In 2014, 273 679 poor students received NSFAS in while this year only 200 000 will be covered. This means 73 000 did not get NSFAS this year. In spite of this, the government still plans to increase the number of students in higher education (from the current 700 000 to 1.25-million by 2030).

The shrinking funding leads to financial exclusion of black working-class students. According to the Council on Higher Education, only one in 20 black students are able to complete their studies in Higher Education Institutions. This is 5% of all black students. More than half who enrol at university drop out before completing their degree. Meanwhile, white South Africans have a 50% higher completion rate than black South Africans.

The merging of the Fees Must Fall / End Outsourcing Now Movement has exposed the depth of the anger against racial, gender and class inequalities. Women workers have been at the centre of this. The calls for system wide change are clear. The struggles around higher education have just begun. When the next academic year resumes in January, another round of battles around financial exclusion and insourcing will resume.

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