Why should fees “fall”?

Today, I listen to the news with an anxious heart and trepidation.  Our universities are burning, and closing down. I wonder what wonderful, courageous Malala Yousafzai*, the girl-hero who nearly lost her life because she wanted to go to school in Pakistan, would say about this.  She believes that education can change the world.

When I was a young child of about six, I already went to the library by bus. By the time I was about ten, there were no books left to read in the Children’s Library, and I got adult cards.  They were formatted like tiny shirtpockets, and the librarian would put the card in the front of the book in your pockets.  When you took back the books, the cards were taken out of your pockets and put in the books. This system worked magnificently. While I continued to read and read and read.

Then, I became a very good typist/pianist (which mean that my fingers were working at great speed) at school and my father could not stop bragging about what a good private secretary I was going to make. In my head, though, I lived on dreams of walking on campuses, sitting in classes and learning or reading for the rest of my entire life. That privilege became mine, and my parents really had to scrape money together, as my father was a car salesman and my mother a housewife. I entered the world of tertiary studying to really find out how journalists write and how people communicate. I revelled like a pig in mud.

What also lived in my head and heart, was that a campus and a university were sites of sacred experiences.  You tread carefully on holy ground, where others before you had become brilliant philosophers and artists, writers and engineers, geologists and scientists. I wanted to join those magical people arguing about difficult problems, finding solutions for society, listen to clever and kind professors and obtain degrees.

In South Africa, most of our big universities have spectacular campuses. Green rolling lawns, enormous libraries that house millions of books, classrooms with good equipment, professors walking around while encouraging young people to learn and understand difficult things. I eventually never stopped learning and did not become anybody’s secretary.  Instead, magic happened when I became a lecturer in Communication and Media Studies.  During this time, I one day walked past a lecturer in the Arts Faculty, who with her students, painted at their easels under a huge tree on the plain.  I had a tiny meltdown when I saw this miraculous sight – people learning while they do what they love most, on a lawn that is dedicated to learning students only.

I still live in South Africa, where I have ties with academia.  And now, as many years ago, I still marvel at the impossible wonder and privilege of people being together, learning. I was, ironically, at a workshop for Gender Learning when the news broke in 2015 of the #FeesMustFall Movement and consequent victory. I did not say much at the time, but I was seething.

I was thinking of those beautiful classrooms and libraries, the lawns and sports grounds, the cafeteria and the privileges of studying to become not only a professional in society – but also a fully responsible adult who in turn realises the importance of passing on the torch of learning. I almost felt injured, because I was thinking about lecturers who teach and mark and supervise until they fall over at night. (There are of course very lazy ones, as well, and a bad professor is as bad as anything else that is bad.)

My mind kept going to all those books in the libraries, the electricity that needs to be paid and which, in various cases, generate the same energy as a smallish town, and the maintenance of the buildings.  I kept remembering the hard-working administrative staff and cleaners, the phone bills, the gardeners, the donors who dug deep into their personal pockets to keep their old universities – their Alma Maters – going via donations.  And I thought to myself, in quite a bewildered way: why does anyone think anything should come for free in our world? Why would a privilege like learning needs to be free?

Many will say that learning and studying is a human right. So is eating, a safe home, running water and a job, a healthy planet.  But we do not have all of those things because we ourselves squandered many of these gifts. I have always believed that not everyone is anyway destined to go to a university to study. The ones who can get through the long, dark hours before tests and exams, and attend classes with hang-overs and flu, are few and far between. Postgraduate students spend years of reading and writing to procure a document that will give them a title – but never for free. Wherever you find yourself, there are monies to be paid to get those coveted diplomas or degrees. It comes, as everything else, with a price tag and sacrifices.

Now we are finding ourselves in the middle of the night in a dark forest, so to speak, at our universities in SA. Libraries and classrooms, monuments and cafeterias are burnt down.  Because of a handful of protestors who do not always even know why they are protesting, thousands of students’ dreams to pass a year or graduate are silently, softly, dying with their futures and their hopes of their families.  The protestors say that education must be free. They also correctly blame Government for wasting taxpayers’ money on the gravy train, which explains why education are not yet for free in their minds.  That is not true.  A university, like any institution, needs money to keep going.

My own daughter has opted to do a postgraduate degree in Holland. It is costing her R260 000.  She worked her butt off, saved like a demon, and had the guts to get on an airplane to fulfill this dream. We were never under an illusion that it will come for free.  Now I have read that all students whose combined parental income is more than R600 000 will be able to study for free.  Not many people in this country earn more than that. Does this mean that thousands of students will now study for free, while they are carried by those from families who are rich?

What we need to realize, is that any child must first get to school – Grade 1 – and then successfully move through twelve years of schooling to get to a university.  Not everyone can study.  Only so many can be selected, and only so many have the will.

Like Martin Luther King, I also had a dream: that those who want to, can go to a university and study long hours to become an employer, employee or leader in society.  But it seems as if that dream is a pipe dream, going up in literal flames. The police have taken over campuses, as I write this.

Why can’t we humans ever cherish our privileges and nurture our actions, instead of breaking down what is?

Today, I am sad and angry and disappointed for all those thousands of students who are possibly going to lose this year as a pass on their records. Today, they are possibly losing hope that they can complete this year, or come back for another year in 2017.

*Malala was the youngest ever receiver of the Nobel Prize for Peace, because of her slogan, one child one book one pen.