Yes, the protests reduce productivity of academics as well…

…and no, we’re not worried that we won’t get our bonus this year because as academics we don’t get any bonuses anyway. Just to answer two recent ‘interesting’ questions in these times of nation-wide student protests in South Africa. With everything that’s been going on here, writing a report on attending the 34th International Conference on Conceptual Modelling (ER’15) ended up lower on the list of activities, and by now it’s almost a month ago, so I’ll let that slip by, despite that it was great and deserves attention. At the time I was in Stockholm for ER’15 and afterward a week at FUB in Bolzano (Italy), nation-wide coordinated student protests were going on, and still are albeit with fewer participants. As most people who heard of it at ER, in Bolzano, and collaborators only saw a brief international news item of the violence—police using stun grenades, rubber bullets—and assumed they were some typical run-of-the-mill student protests that happen also in other countries: I think this one is different from others, and more complex. Fundamentally, the protests are about the (mostly) young generation expressing that post-apartheid South Africa hasn’t improved nearly enough—neither the societal nor the educational nor the economic dimension—and demanding a better deal. So, here’s a coloured version of some of it, mainly intended for a non-South African readership to get a bit of an idea what’s going on and put some figures into perspective w.r.t. what I assume most of you are more familiar with. I could try to put up the pretence of objectivity, but I’m probably not. Some useful sources are news24, for quick short updates of events as they unfold, and Groundup, for some in-depth articles.


Main concrete issues

Over the past years, government funding of universities has been diminishing, with the shortfall being made up by yearly fees increases, which is an unsustainable financial model and it increasingly excludes more and more qualifying students to study at a university, especially since the student financial aid scheme hasn’t kept up and the fees increases are higher than inflation rate and wage increases that are 4-7% per year. The scheduled 10% for next year was the last straw. After the first week of protests, they managed to get a commitment from Zuma on Oct 23 for 0% fees increase for next year. While this is more than we achieved back in the ’90 in the Netherlands when we were protesting against fees increases (among other things), at that time, anyone who qualified still could get just about sufficient funds to attend university for 5 years to get a (Bachelors +) Masters degree (without it, I probably wouldn’t have gone to the university either). The latter is not the case here, not even close: the scholarship (‘studiebeurs’ in NL) then there amounts to about 100000 Rand a year here now, then with the average monthly salary of 17000K gross, that’s about half a parent’s net income/year for one year of study. But the average wage is not the kind of amount that leaves extras for saving. Apparently, for a nuclear-family household, one needs a sustained income of at least 500000/year to have enough to save over the years to pay for going to university—yes, at least twice the ‘jan modaal’/average income to be able to afford it. With South Africa having a shameful Gini coefficient of 0.71, go figure how many are in that category.

This was only the first core demand. Here, as in many universities across the world, there has been a drive for outsourcing of certain types of work—cleaning, garden maintenance and the like—in a drive for pushing down overhead costs. This might have looked good on the balance sheets at the time when the decisions were made, but the ‘collateral damage’ was that the outsourced workers did not get the benefits anymore that they had as employees of the university. Notably, the fee rebate for themselves and their family members. So, this is a double whammy for workers, making it even harder for their kids to go to university, for having to pay the full fee and for generally being on the really low pay scales that make attending university totally unaffordable and out of reach. At various points in or at the end of the second week of the protests, several universities (including UCT) committed to insourcing: when the contracts with the outsourcing companies terminate, they’ll become university employees again, with the fee rebate benefits.

That’s not all. A dastardly practice that cash-strapped universities resort to in a desperate attempt to get the unpaid or only partially paid fees from students (down to the last cent), is that when students still have outstanding fees to pay, they won’t get their final exam results and won’t be allowed to graduate. But that having-completed-the-degree-but-no-parchment-to-show-for limbo is precisely preventing students to get decent-paying jobs, or even a job at all, making it harder to pay up the remaining debt; double whammy here as well. Hence, the demand of clearing such historical debt, or at least to let them graduate, so they can get a job and start paying back soon (2? 3? 5? years) thereafter. The latter is quite common in other countries, including the country where I studied. (Had they not have that pay-back-later system, many a door would have remained closed to me as well (I had to borrow money for 4 months because of delays due to a serious sports injury near the end of my studies—after the 5 years funded, see above)). This issue is mostly still unresolved in South Africa. To relate to elsewhere: there’s many a sob story about graduates in the USA with “crippling college debts”, but what’s really crippling for one’s career is being stuck with the debt but not having the proof of the degree even though you satisfied its requirements. There’s some 25-30% unemployment rate in South Africa, and a degree paper really does make a difference.


Fair play to them, and I hope they achieve the demands. I would be very hypocritical if I were to not support them, as I have benefited from those things they want to have, and I wish that all countries would have the system we had back in the 1990s. True, I was then at one of the fronts of protests against the breakdown of it, and what we had certainly was not perfect. However, compared to what it has descended into in the Netherlands and other EU countries, and the lamentable state of the funding systems (well: the lack thereof) in most countries of the world, it almost sounds like an education paradise nowadays: finish highest level of (fee-free) secondary school, sign up for a degree at a university of your preference[1], get enough funding for 5 years that covers fees, books, living expenses, and free public transport (condition: >=25% courses passed/year). It should be at least like that, if not better, everywhere.


Other issues intersecting with it

It is not just about access to higher education, though. Once in, there’s still the so-called ‘legacy of apartheid’ to put up with, which many a student wants to see changed. This sneer-quoted term surely includes the racism, which is, perhaps, the only thing non-SA readers from my generation and older may think of. Perhaps less obvious are the issues of the “dead white men”-infested curricula, especially in the humanities, or, to phrase it positively: how to change a Euro-centric curriculum to one that is more relevant to Africa? There are notable African writers, philosophers, etc etc., but they don’t feature much now.

There’s the oppressive space and naming of buildings, with the #RhodesMustFall movement but one instance of trying to change this (tl;dr: Cecil Rhodes was an über-badass among the badass colonisers, yet having a statue in a central place on campus, which has been removed earlier this year).

Government funding post-1994 has focussed primarily on making the lives of the poorest-of-the-poor less hard, by building houses, working on providing potable water, electricity, and the like. Poor students somehow were not allowed to complain, for having the privilege of going to university. However, really scraping by is hard. That’s not of the type ‘just about enough’ I mentioned above, where we could afford cheap food, clothing, and housing—the basic necessities in Maslov’s pyramid. For instance, at the university I worked before (UKZN), a call to employees was put out in exam time at the end of the year to donate money so that the destitute students would be able to get a meal/day in exam time, as the alternative for them was no food at all. It was also not unusual that students were locked out of residence for not having paid (an unlocked lecture hall serving as make-shift sleeping place). The current protests created a space where such hardships were allowed to be voiced.

Then there’s the crazy police violence. It was not part of the original narrative for the protests, but it has become part of it. Universities here have a tendency to call in the police when there are protests. Once they’re in, they take over. Unpredictable horses and ‘refreshing’ water cannons is one thing (I know of those), and even tear gas (experienced that too), but rubber bullets (!) and the (wtf!) stun grenades, that’s of a yet different level of dastardliness. To add insult to injury, the police spokesperson even declared to be proud/satisfied that the police had acted with restraint. Compared to the massacre that Marikana was (police killed 34 strikers), I guess so, yes, but that certainly ought not to be the yardstick to measure up against. Although there are reports that some more recent protests did not remain peaceful from the protester-side, they were in the early days when the police provoked with the violence. On a related note: I heard that during the protests, academics on the frontline couldn’t stop the police from charging, but a ‘buffer’ of white students could make them hesitate at least. I’ll leave that fact for you to chew on.

This is not all, but, for now, it’ll have to do for this item, lest the blog post ends up way to long.


On the academics side

On the whole, I have the impression that the majority of academics have been supportive of the initial students demands, if not from day one then in hindsight. There have been supportive open letters signed by lots of academics, and a bunch joined in the protests. I cannot recall many supportive statements explicitly from staff/academics unions, however, but this may also be due to news reporting, or perhaps there’s room for a more progressive union. Some are pushed out of their comfort zone and feel it’s a bit scary but ok actually, other desperately want to remain in their comfy bubble and are afraid. Some academics are yelled at for being just too melanin-deficient that they could not possibly support the cause (even when they actually do), but are perceived to be part of the problem; this kind of over-generalising isn’t the way to get more academics on board to support the students’ cause. There’s the term coconut (black on the outside, white on the inside); what would the reverse be? The ‘schoolkrijt’ liquorice sweets they sell at Pick ‘n Pay (white on the outside, some brown-ish mixture on the inside)? Or, better, just human.

UCT was closed for two weeks due to the protests, which was a management decision that most academics did not like. Not for disruption of the daily routine, but for the notion of closing that space where ideas are posed, discussed, analysed, debated, contested, and possibly some solutions found.

It is not at all clear whether admin staff and academics will have to cough up the shortfall due to government’s insufficient compensation of the 0% and the insourcing, so there may be an aftermath match there. The tl;dr of many articles: education is a public good, not an individualist benefit, so society should pay, and a university is not a corporation.

At the same time, we’re devising a range of scenarios to cope with changing situations (like how to handle exam disruption), inform students, adjust things (e.g., rescheduling of revision lectures, the content of the actual exam papers, setting an extra exam) and so on. This takes time away from research and from other activities academics do. Which brings me back to the post’s title: yes, our work is affected in that we don’t get as much done as we usually do, and things slip through (deadline missed, belated response to a student query). In the grand scheme of things, they are minor compared to your (from abroad) typesetted-paper-chasing/article-review-invitation/…, and I hope you can bear with the occasional slight delay in my response (for the benefit of SA).

[1] provided you chose the right exam subjects—e.g., to study computer science, you need maths, to study physics you needed physics as subject in your high school exam—and with only medicine, physio, and dentistry were numerus fixus.


One response to “Yes, the protests reduce productivity of academics as well…

  1. Pingback: A new selection of book reviews (from 2015) | Keet blog

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