Whatever the reason for campus unrest, parents are rightly concerned about the safety of their children on campus. Parents cannot be blamed to think that campus unrest is an excuse not to write exams or semester tests. They feel there is too much of a co-incidence between the outbreak of unrest and exam dates. The recent outburst at the University of Venda during exams, serves as a validation of parents’ views. UKZN is in lockdown mode and it seems that the situation could continue. At NMU, students protested after another student was allegedly raped. At TUT, the death of a student, allegedly at the hands of the police, sparked angry actions .
Student protests are not unique to South Africa. Police are preparing for a standoff at the Chapel Hill Campus at the University of North Carolina. At Duke University, the name of a building has sparked protests. Mexican students are clashing with the police about fees and other reasons. In Bangladesh there are riots about road safety.
Parents are questioning whether it is worth the risk to send their children to institutions where no one’s safety and uninterrupted access to higher education can be guaranteed. No one knows what little spark could trigger protests at any time. In a South African context, parents bluntly state that unrest at public tertiary institutions are allowed to simmer because politicians are too afraid to act in case they may lose votes at the next elections.
In the wake of the current technical recession and in view of the fact, that smaller economies outperform us on the Global Competitiveness Index, one must ask for how long could our leaders allow these protests go on before they step in? Allowing misbehaviour for ballots’ sake fan views that South Africa is not an attractive investment destination. More alarming, though, is the toll that these protests take on the nation’s ability to develop a knowledge economy. For almost ten years, the country has been hovering on the left side of an efficiency-driven economy that is a small step away from sliding back to a factor-driven economy. The fact that many indicators on the Global Competitiveness Index still show downward trends, compel parents to ask about the future of their children’s education. They feel that public institutions of learning have lost control and that standards cannot be trusted.
Such a perception cannot be good news for public tertiary institutions who are already battling to find sufficient funds for their operational requirements. Protecting public tertiary institutions against thuggery and disruption must become an important agenda. There is much appreciation for Government’s initiatives to make education accessible and affordable to all. But disruptions, unsafe conditions, dirty campuses, burnt down classes or auditoriums create the perception that higher education has become just another sort of reality TV show.
Since public institutions of tertiary learning are under financial strain to improve safety, clean learning environments, rebuild burnt down facilities, there will be increased pressure on third income streams. Said third income streams will not be based on short courses and other extra-curricular teaching programs. Instead, public institutions would be forced to form closer bonds with the private sector. Research agendas would have to change so that the private sector commissions more research and innovation projects at public tertiary institutions. This will also mean that the separation between the academic arm and the innovation arm at public institutions could undergo change.
A migration away from public institutions of learning towards private institutions will gain momentum. The perception that private institutions are more expensive than public institutions, is no longer valid. In addition, higher throughput rates at private institutions (50+% compared to less than 30% at public institutions) will fuel the migration. Third, programs at some private institutions are recognised by professional bodies, which means that students do not need degrees to obtain professional status after they have completed a program.
South Africa’s tertiary education landscape is going to transform in ways that may catch politicians by surprise.