IS IT really worth paying up to R100,000 a year to get an undergraduate degree from one of SA’s top universities?

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IS IT really worth paying up to R100,000 a year to get an undergraduate degree from one of SA’s top universities? By the time a student at Wits, Rhodes or the University of Cape Town walks onto the graduation stage, their parents would have coughed up R300,000-R400,000 for their child’s first degree, including fees and residence costs. There is something really wrong here and, as a colleague commented: "What does our communist Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande have to say about this?" No student in a developing country should be paying more than R250,000 to obtain a humble BA or B.Com degree. It is not as if students will leave our top universities with a diamond-studded parchment and a red carpet to their first job rolled out to justify these costs.

So what is going on here? New Rhodes University vice-chancellor Sizwe Mabizela gave some insight into sustainability challenges facing SA’s universities, saying government funding has been declining in real and per capita terms since 2000, forcing institutions to find new strategies to remain financially stable.

He argued that in the face of this shrinking pool of public funds, tuition fees have been steadily increasing, shifting the financial burden onto students themselves.

The segment that feels this pinch the most is not the poor but struggling middle-income families, which Mabizela called "the missing middle". While the state provides funding mechanisms for poor families through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and the richest segment can pay for itself, those in between usually struggle to access finance from banks. The families do not qualify for NSFAS because they earn just more than the R180,000 threshold, and are usually overindebted and financially burdened teachers, nurses, police officers and other professionals.

Though universities can cross-subsidise a small minority of struggling students, the upshot is that they must make room for those who can pay. This means the system is increasingly selecting ability to pay over intellectual ability, a de facto commercialised recruitment mechanism.

In a recent New York Times article, Kevin Currey describes some of the commercial branding strategies used by some US universities, which hike their fees to garner an aura of exclusivity and prestige by attracting the well-heeled. Students become more akin to customers who expect to get a certain "brand" of education rather than an education in and of itself.

Bill Readings argued presciently in his book, The University in Ruins, that the contemporary university is more like a transnational corporation that has lost its traditional mission to serve as a crucible of national intellectual culture. In the place of "culture", our universities now offer some vague notion of market-related "excellence", for which we charge exorbitant fees.

For SA the situation is a problem not only because of inequality, but also because a kind of schizophrenia has set in about the purpose of our universities. Having emerged from a troubled past of segregation and intellectual parochialism, our universities have tried to shed this history by putting on new branded clothes of "excellence", "top rating", "social justice" and "transformation". Correctly so, much of this transformation has been about deracialising the faculty and administrative structure. But protests over high fees in SA, Chile and, recently, the Netherlands tell us this corporatised system cannot prevail.

I’m reminded of a friend from a working-class background on the Cape Flats who was one of JM Coetzee’s and Andre Brink’s top students at the University of Cape Town in the 1990s.

No market can measure the value of that educational encounter because, paradoxically, the true value of a university emerges on the strength of an intellectual commitment that is beyond price.

Article by : Nomalanga Mkhize.

Article source : Business Day.