Brief notes on a crisis: #FeesMustFall

The University of Cape Town’s Senate met this morning. I had to leave at 12:15, but the meeting – which started at 10:00 – had up until that point merely confirmed what we all know is the case: that there are no easy answers, and very little agreement on how to proceed.

What agreement there was consisted of a general consensus that we’d like to be able to teach, and that students would like to be able to learn. Teaching and learning are obviously core business for a university, and why most of us are there, so agreement on this is no surprise.

At least two things stand in the way of resuming these activities: first, students who want to have various demands met before the university can re-open; and second, students and staff who will not tolerate re-opening under certain conditions (in particular, where re-opening is accompanied by the presence of private security and/or police).

Both of these constraints put us in a difficult – arguably impossible – position, unless one or both of these extreme positions is amenable to compromise. (Intermediate positions of course exist, but as is often the case in debates such as these, they tend not to dominate the conversation.)

As far as the student demands go, some things are not within our (“our” being the universities) power to grant, and even to significantly influence. Free tertiary education is the most obvious example here, in that because universities rely on state funding for (roughly) 40% of their income, it would take state intervention to make this possible.

Today’s annoucement by the Presidency, of a Ministerial task-team to advise on how to resolve the crisis in higher education,  might ordinarily be thought to be a positive step. But given that the task-team doesn’t even include the Minister of Finance, and given that the task-team was announced within hours of a summons being issued to the current Ministe of Finance to appear in court on charges of fraud, we’d be naive to think that the state will commit to free tertiary education anytime soon.

On this topic, one could of course engage with the question of whether they in fact should do so, in any case. That level of expenditure means that less is spent elsewhere, for example in primary or secondary education, or in healthcare. It does not detract from your sympathy for students struggling with fee debt, or struggling to be able to afford to get into university, to make the point that investment of this sort requires trade-offs, and that higher education is not the obvious place to allocate the funds required.

On the question of staff and students who are reluctant, or who refuse, to teach and learn on a “militarised” campus, one thing that increasingly bothers me is that it seems a basic requirement of being a constitutionalist that you’re willing to see the Constitution defended, and even enforced.

This means defending the rule of law, and even if you think it a Constitutional violation that some don’t have access to higher education, if the universities can’t do anything about that, they should surely at least defend the rights of those who do currently benefit from that access (while doing one’s utmost to broaden that access).

The problem with police and private security is of course twofold: the optics are terrible, particulary so in a country with our history. And second, the possibility of poor training and over-reaction make it possible, or even likely, that students with entirely legitimate grievances will be harmed.

Those two problems should – in an ideal world – never mean that violence on the part of protesters is condoned. But I do think it legitimate to ask whether we have a public order police system, or a private security force, who are able to uphold the law, and to restrict or preclude lawlessness while allowing for lawful protest.

I make this last point simply to illustrate a key distinction that I don’t see expressed often enough, and that is the distinction between the principle of law enforcement being desirable (by whichever of police or private security), and the pragmatic reality of whether this can be done without even worse consequences ensuing.

A government that was credible might well have a police force that was trusted, which means that the average citizen (in this case, mainly university staff and students) would support their endeavors to enforce the rule of law. We don’t have such a government.

And on the other side of the argument, for as much as academics argue that they cannot teach under conditions in which uniformed and armed people stroll around campus, the consequences of not teaching at all are pretty unpleasant also, and include wasted fees, productive researchers fleeing the country, the possibility of crises in various sectors (such as healthcare) that depend on a pipeline of graduates, and secondary school-leavers who are left in limbo.

Finally, let’s not fool ourselves regarding what open campuses – but ones under heavy security – look and feel like. It’s possible to pretend that it’s business as usual, but if you’re teaching to a half-empty class of demoralised students (some of whom might even believe that they shouldn’t be there in the first place, because being there is a betrayal of a cause), and if you are yourself demoralised, and increasingly alienated from your place of work, it’s difficult to imagine that effective teaching and learning is going on in any event.

There are no answers here, sorry. But the more I see people people saying some version of “it’s easy, just teargas them” or “it’s easy, just make education free”, the more I want to make the simple point that, well, it’s not that simple.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.