Notwithstanding increased State investment in NSFAS, there is little improvement in universities’ stability and outcomes, says Professor Adam Habib

Published On: 11 December 2023|

South Africa is spending R35-billion more on higher education than it did five years ago, largely due to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and its funding of students whose annual family income is below the R350,000 threshold. 

“But are our universities more stable, is our higher education more stable, and is the quality of the graduates better?” Professor Adam Habib asks. “Because if the answer is “no” to any one of that — and I would venture 70% to 80% of education executives would say we are no better off from an outcomes-based perspective — then we are wasting R35 billion a year without the positive developmental outcomes and inclusion outcomes we want. That’s a challenge, and we need to confront that.”

Habib (left), former Vice-Chancellor (VC) and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and now Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, spoke alongside Dr Max Price, Emeritus Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cape Town turned consultant during a webinar on 21 November.  The panel discussion was hosted by the University of the Free State (UFS) as part of its Thought-Leader Webinar Series that started in 2018. The 21 November event was titled Student Protest Action, Politics, and Higher Education. 

Habib and Price led the two South African universities during the fallist movements of 2015/16. #RhodesMustFall started at UCT in March 2015 when human excrement was poured over the prominent statue of the British mining magnate and politician, Cecil John Rhodes, on the campus. In October of that year, #FeesMustFall exploded at Wits and spread into a national movement, characterised by violence and almost closing down most universities.

The two former vice-chancellors have written books about their leadership experiences during those protests. Habib’s Rebels and Rage: Reflecting on #FeesMustFall, was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in 2019 and Price’s Statues and Storms – Leading Through Change by NB Publishers in August 2023.

Did #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall achieve their aims?

Habib’s comments about the effect of the additional R35-billion expenditure were in response to a question by Professor Francis Petersen (above), Vice-Chancellor and Principal at UFS, who moderated the discussion. Although #RhodesMustFall had focused more on institutional culture than #FeesMustFall, both campaigns were intended to achieve specific goals, he said.  Had they? Petersen wanted to know. “How effective were they? And if we now look back at what they wanted to do for higher education in South Africa, did that happen?” he asked. 

He said free education was the “big success story”, namely, granting concessions around NSFAS. He said he would argue, though, that it “had as much to do with the protests as it had to do with the faction fighting within the ANC and the impetuous character of the former president (Jacob Zuma) to nail his successor by ensuring that he made a commitment that would land his successor with the consequences of it”.

Professor Habib remembered having conversations with government ministers who knew it was unaffordable but couldn’t stop it because they were caught in a faction fight. They knew Zuma’s concessions would not end the sector’s financial challenges. “The missing middle challenge remains and the fact that we have continued protests every year is a sign of that,” said Habib. The “missing middle” refers to students whose families’ total annual household income exceeds the NSFAS threshold and therefore do not qualify for NSFAS funding, but still cannot afford higher education.

The former VC said it was possible to get free education, but it needed to evolve over time and needed “hard trade-offs for us as a society”. 

#RhodesMustFall, on the other hand, “did impart to universities a greater sensitivity and belonging and made them more conscious of what has come to be known as microaggressions and unintended bias. It’s put demographic diversity on the table in a way that is far more equitable across the system. I am quite struck by how after #FeesMustFall, diversity increased across all institutions,” he said.

However, it had sometimes provoked “a really dumbed down debate on decolonisation. It legitimised a really racialised approach to understandings of curriculum and what is legitimate and what is not. And I worry that sometimes it undermined what is the very nature of the cosmopolitan character and the international orientation of a university,” he said.

Habib said he had small regrets about decisions he had taken, one example being some meetings he would not have attended and certain people he would not have engaged with, had he known the outcomes would play out the way they had.

Habib and regrets

His main regret was that he had to confront some hard trade-offs. “Do I allow a university building to be bombed, or do I act and bring in police? Do I expel a certain student for trying to bomb a bus that had 14 students on it? I had to choose between allowing the person to get away with that behaviour or threaten the lives of other members of our institutional community. That was a hard trade-off.”

Ultimately, the decisions were not his alone, but were part of a collective executive. “The choices that the executive leadership made in 2015, 2016, are why Wits is one of the few public institutions that survives in a city where all public institutions have collapsed,” he said. “How is it that this institution produces more, it researches more? It functions as a normal entity that could compete with any other institution. And that’s because this institution and its executive had the courage to make hard choices. We were not the only one,” he said. “But making those hard choices allowed those institutions to survive,” he said.

Advice to university leaders

His advice to university leaders is the need to rethink student governance. “I worry about the overt representation of party politics,” he said, stressing it was not politics, but party politics that was a concern.

“Too much of student governance is about the ANC competing with the DA competing with the EFF and them out trying to outplay each other. We’re fighting a social struggle. Many of those senior political leaders got coopted into government. Their political parties had created the policy infrastructure for the crisis in universities and then they were protesting it. There’s real crippling behaviour,” he said.

“How do we get student governance representing the views of students, as opposed to representing the views of the political parties of students, because then the student leaders behave no differently from politicians in Parliament, and that is partly paralysing student governance. 

“Student politics is important. Student party politics is paralysing,” he said. 

Romanticising violence

He said his book warned about the legitimacy of violence. “It says very clearly: ‘you can’t engage in a struggle for free education and then burn down buildings’.” 

He said there was a romanticisation of violence of South Africa where every social movement becomes violent in some form or other. 

Many left-wing activists had said the violence during #FeesMustFall had arisen from police action. “If you do the analysis of the actual events on the ground, this is nonsensical for places like Wits. There were political actors that were deliberately being violent because they thought they could get outcomes. And what violence does is: it splits the movement, it polarises it. The movement lost large support as this event proved.

“We need to take a hard line against violence. I know of no progressive society that tolerates it. This idea that democratic societies tolerate violence is nonsensical. Go to any progressive struggle from Cuba, to the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union, none of them tolerated anarchic violence that passes as legitimate progressive activity in SA.”

He said it was argued that because there is structural violence in an unequal society, violence is permitted. “This is a nonsensical anarchist interpretation, a right-wing populist interpretation,” he said, saying structural violence also exists in capitalist societies. “The legitimacy of violence is an indulgence destroying not the universities, but our whole society. And until progressives or those who claim to be progressives start developing a pragmatic understanding of violence, and not romanticising it, we will be in trouble,” he said.

The answer to dealing with this is through acculturation, or modifying the culture, and accountability. Acculturation by proactively engaging with student leaders, management, academic leaders and academics, professional services staff, and unions, into looking at what is acceptable practice and what is not.

But acculturation needed to be balanced with accountability if universities wanted to fundamentally transform institutional culture. 

“I promise you if we do not have the courage to throw the book at somebody who’s violent, we will destroy our societies. There’s too much indulgence of violence by particularly progressive academics,” said Habib, saying justifying violence is not in the least bit progressive.

“Frankly, if there’s anything that needs to be done in a university, it’s to challenge this romanticised nonsensical discourse that has emerged on violence in South Africa. Because I promise you, it will destroy us as a country if we don’t get our act together,” said Professor Habib. 

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.