JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
I WAS supposed to be at Wits University this week to attend the ‘What do you know about Black tax’ dialogue, hosted by Busisiwe Gumede of eNews. Unfortunately I was stopped at the gate, wasn’t allowed in. And I was told that the dialogue had been cancelled.
It was cancelled because of students’ riots in campus. The security guard told me the university staff had been instructed to leave the premises earlier that day.
Over the past three days the campus has slipped into turmoil and all the activities and classes have been suspended. Students demand that the tuition fees be not raised. And they, at least it seems to me, have support on their cause – many people support the protests.
But I think that before South Africans support such protests, they should give themselves time to think about them.
They should think about the possible reasons why the university raised the price of education for next year and beyond. I doubt that any academic institution would raise prices without any sane, valid reason.
When they have thought thoroughly about this, then they will be in a better position to have a discussion with the university on the proposed new fees.
Education is like any good or service in the market – it costs money to produce it. Most people, including students who are protesting overlook this basic fact. Meaning, that like any other producer or seller, the price the university charges for education will have to account for the cost of production. And given South Africa’s weak economy, the rand losing its value, and the rising cost of living, the academic institutions, like businesses have to adjust.
A serious fallacy by most people, is the thinking that producers raise prices solely for the purposes of making more profit – the thought that they raise prices because of greed and selfishness.
This is seldom true. Most businesses hike their prices due to the rise in cost of production – which is understandable. They can only survive, grow and create jobs only if they sell their products above the cost of production.
The other scenario is where they raise prices because of a surge in demand for a particular good or service. But demand increases are rare in these tough economic times. So most of the time the rise in prices is fuelled by the rise in cost of production.
So true with academic institutions as well; they cannot evade these basic rules of economics. What they charge students has to account for the cost of producing education – they have to pay the academic staff, pay for the maintenance of laboratories, keep the lights on, the stationary. These are costs that the university has to incur to become a productive learning environment.
It seems to me the students at Wits do not want to understand these basics on economics. Their chaotic reaction to the increase in tuition fees proves this.
Prices of goods and services rise often, so should we protest every time this happens? No we should not and we usually do not. We live with the cost, reorganize ourselves, enhance our skills, and look for extra jobs in order to keep up with the rising cost of living.
I speak this way because it bothers me when students vandalize the university premises, classes suspended, because of their discontent over something they have no control of. In this stuttering economy prices have to rise, and they are rising. Unfortunately no one has the ability to control these prices except the competitive markets. They do it in Venezuela, and as we speak, their economy is trapped in crisis.
Whatever students do in their efforts to persuade the university to review its decision on tuition fees, it should be peaceful. It should not be at the expense of education. There’s nothing wrong with the buyer and seller negotiating, without coercion, the price of a good or service in the market – that we encourage, and it is a critical component of economic freedom.
What is disappointing is that these students will never choose peaceful and informed ways to engage with the university. They have become violent and deaf, have threatened their Vice Chancellor, Adam Habib, with assault. Is this what our universities can produce? We can do better than this.
I want students to think objectively on such issues affecting their education. They should not take logic and common sense off the table when confronted by these challenges. As the educated, we expect them to think at a higher level than most citizens – which is something they do not do at the moment.
What they need to do is to stop ignorance, get back to classes and learn; while engaging with the university on their concerns. Will the outcome of the engagement be satisfactory to both? Probably not. But we human beings are so smart that we have always, always found ways to respond to challenges we face. And in this one too, we will respond accordingly.
You will note that I said nothing about the possible government interventions in an attempt to curb the rising price of education. I did that purposely – because whether government intervenes or not the price will continue to rise – it won’t stop. The difference will be that someone else will pay the cost, not the students – and I do not think that is fair.
South Africa has potential, no doubt about that. It does have the foundations to start paving the way towards a prosperous future. And it’s the students at Wits University who will take this country forward. But they won’t do so if they take common sense and logic off the table on challenges we face. That I mean it. PM
© PHUMLANI M. MAJOZI