Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Free Higher Education is Not a Universal Right: Declaration or Debate?

“Emancipatory politics must always destroy the appearance of a ‘natural order’, must reveal what is presented as necessary and inevitable to be a mere contingency, just as it must make what was previously deemed to be impossible seem attainable.”
Mark Fischer

In a recent article, political analyst Ebrahim Fakier and medical doctor Aayesha Soni assert that “free higher education is not a universal right” and lay out their argument for why universal free higher education in South Africa is not only unfeasible, but amoral, irresponsible and unfairly privileges education above other services. They raise a number of points in their argument, however, which deserve some measure of interrogation and response. The points discussed below in this piece, speak directly to what I view as contestable points raised in their argument.

First, with respect to the key question the author’s pose – whether free education is a universal right – the answer is clearly “no”. However, it must be remembered that until recently women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and the rights of black people were not recognised. So the real question is not whether access to free education is a right or not, but if it should be, and if society desires it to be. The article critiqued in this piece does not venture into that territory sufficiently, even though that is the central point of the activism in question.

Even though the authors do briefly acknowledge the tension between right and left perspectives i.e. education as commodity (right) versus education as public good (left), the article largely lapses into fiscal and economic realism, and presents the status quo – in respect of the underlying fiscal and economic dimensions of the question – as though it were the unquestionable, permanent order of things (more on this in the concluding section of this piece). They do not, in any measure, offer an alternative way forward. In a world where techno-capitalists such as Elon Musk are arguing for basic universal income to be granted, this seems a tenuous and conservative angle to take on a cause that is increasingly gaining support in societies across the globe.

Yet there is more to the article that requires scrutiny, and indeed in some places, more debate and discussion. My critique of the key points – tendered here with the greatest respect and appreciation for their contribution – is but a limited one; I cannot pretend to be an expert on all the issues that were raised. So it is with acknowledgement of these limitations that I will proceed.

Service delivery protests and student protests:

The authors claim that service delivery protests have numbered 300 since about 20 years ago. However, research clearly showed a significant uptick in major service delivery protests since circa 2009 that was dramatically different from the preceding years since 1994 (see Figures 1 and 2 in this source document. Major service delivery protests did not number 300 per year since 20 years ago. I can’t interrogate the authors’ statistics because they did not provide a source. I can accept that that service delivery protests are counted differently depending on how they are defined. However, here are several sources that disagree with their contention. Notwithstanding that statistics can be strung together to support a variety of causal hypotheses, evidence of a post-Polokwane uptick in major service delivery protests in South Africa exists and should be acknowledged. I include a mix of research and news articles at the end of this piece that account for how difficult it is to pin down stats on ‘service delivery’ protests so that the reader can look into it themselves.

If it is accepted that there was a significant uptick in major service delivery protests circa 2008-2009, then it stands to reason that the generation who were teenagers at that time (say around 13 years old in 2009) have now entered the higher education system, and may have imported more drastic protest tactics along with them. This is especially the case in former black universities, which are generally cheaper, and hence attract less materially fortunate students. There may well be a connection between the two, and to simply dismiss it the way the authors have done constitutes a premature analysis of it.

Education vs Healthcare?

Nowhere in the debate on free higher education have I seen an argument advanced that healthcare should be defunded to fund free higher education. The authors seems to have set up this trade-off in their own imaginations – a thought experiment they were proposing – but it has no basis in reality. I noted that one of the authors is a medical doctor and that may have influenced their choice of example.

It does not seem a fair comparison to compare healthcare with education i.e. the comparison does not compare ‘apples with apples’. Education is not the same as education. Healthcare is a basic essential service, whereas education is an investment. Whereas healthcare is an essential basic service provided to society, education is an investment in society. Even though healthcare has co-benefits in terms of keeping a labour force functional, these benefits are vastly different from that of education. If we acknowledge that education is in fact an investment then it follows then it should be evaluated very differently from healthcare. For example, education should be assessed in terms of its contribution to increasing socio-economic mobility and accessibility, its contribution to entrepreneurialism and economic growth, its social and political value in terms of having an educated society and electorate, and so forth. This is not to devalue healthcare services by any means, but merely to point out that the ‘public good’ derived from healthcare is significantly different from that derived from education.

Moreover, #FeesMustFall activists have proposed increased taxation on the wealthy and the private sector, that universities make an effort to secure more funds through their channels[i], and through scrapping the R1 Trillion nuclear deal (which makes sense for a number of other reasons). The authors do not address the question of planned large-scale infrastructure expenditure such as the nuclear deal, which research has shown is not necessary, will prove more costly to consumers, and is likely to expand, likely imposing crippling costs on the South African public (in particular the next generation). Rather, the authors address the call for increased taxation by invoking fears of middle class flight, notwithstanding that that argument has been overplayed ad nauseam since pre-1994 to negate transformation efforts across the board. It is a valid concern, but it is only a limiting factor, and does not constitute an argument for failing to develop creative options for transformation of higher education institutions.

Free higher education benefits only student activists:

The authors’ characterisation that students “claims are of a particularist, special interest kind, of benefit directly to them” flies in the face of simple logic. How does it square against the often repeated argument that black graduates typically support many more family members than white graduates? How does it square against government’s strategy to increase the number and percentage of black industrialists and entrepreneurs in the economy, as well as their overall share of the economy itself? How does it square against the pressing need to reduce the high levels of inequality in South Africa, which delineates along racial lines and threatens socio-political stability? How does it square with a global future in which traditional opportunities for work and labour will increasingly decline? How does it square against the need to diversify the South African economy, so that it becomes more resilient in the emerging “postcapitalist” era?

Skills development is critical for mobility and access of those who remain marginal in the formal economy of South Africa, most of whom are young and black, and it is not good enough to fob off this necessary objective with the retort that amounts to, “well not many of them make it to university anyway”. The economy of the future cannot be accessed with basic school-leaver skills (except perhaps with the exception of ICT); high level skills are essential to access the information economy, and this is unlikely to become less so over time.

Moreover, many of the protesting students – especially in the more expensive former white universities – can afford to pay their university fees (i.e. their parents can). Their activism for free education puts them at odds with both the government and their institutions, and will likely negatively impact their chances of employment or further career development, especially at institutions of higher education. Moreover, when the cause is for free higher education for all, how can that be said to benefit only those who are activists for it? It makes no sense to state that when you fight for free universal access to a service then only you benefit from it.

Leaderless social movement is “cowardice”:

That leaderless social movements are “cowardice” is a highly contentious suggestion as in reality the movement is not leaderless; rather it has adopted an alternative model of leadership. Moreover, when attempting to formulate a new movement, one that requires extensive debate and interchange, it is wise not to box it into highly regulated structures, forms of engagement, and leadership models. In my view that will kill off the potential to generate new ways forward. Ultimately the movement will have to organise and focus itself, but it does not need to do so at its very outset; holding the space open for an agenda and vision to emerge is appropriate. Indeed, new forms of democratic social movements are embracing this; the Occupy movement is one such example; it ensures that people who hold different ideologies can come together around an issue; that is important in the current political context, where ideologies have become insufficient – even corrupted – in the political realm. It is essential for enabling new possibilities to emerge from consensus that is garnered outside and beyond ideological constraints.  

The “amorphous public good”:

I don’t understand why a term like the “public good” is seen as too vague to understand or pin down. Especially when, in their absence, things go so clearly wrong. Labelling it amorphous is facetious. It’s self-evident that education is a public good, and that investing in education will yield significant public benefits beyond the private realm. Moreover, with the changing nature of work in the 21st Century, where less institutional and organisational jobs will be available i.e. employment seekers will suffer; does it not make sense that having a more educated citizenry will empower them to go out and create vehicles for themselves? This downsizing in the scales at which employment occurs (i.e. through more small to medium scale entrepreneurship, service delivery and other self-driven activities) may provide a valuable way of employing people who would otherwise not find employment through traditional channels in the future.

For a comprehensive account of why education is indisputably a public good that extends into multiple spheres of social, economic and political life, see Henry Giroux's piece, "Higher Education and the Politics of Disruption".

Private or semi-private services are superior to state services:

There is also an undercurrent that runs through all the arguments that detract from the idea of free education, namely that when services cease to be paid for their quality depreciates. There is a lack of critical engagement with the logic employed here. Are the authors suggesting that public services cannot equal private sector services? Because if they are, then the logical outcome of that argument is that privatisation should provide wonderful outcomes for society and we would not need the state as much. However, there are very many examples to the contrary.

Moreover, feeding the notion that private services are essentially better is buying into a whole system of privatisation that has crept up on services and put a stranglehold on them. Private healthcare is a good example of how global industries from big pharma to medical aid systems have inflated prices to the detriment of the public good, and indeed, squeezed people out of the service, especially the poor and unemployed. As a service it is less accessible, even if its quality may be good.

It is not enough to imply that the status quo should determine how public investment is allocated; public investment should be allocated in order to shape the future. And when it comes to SA universities, which are public institutions that function on a public-private funding model, how public investment shapes its future should be interrogated, analysed and debated thoroughly so that it leads to the outcomes that most benefit the society we live in.

Private sector services may be generally better right now, but that is a product of a highly skewed economic system that prejudices the poor and prioritises the wealthy. The question that #FMF is posing is, is that the kind of society we want to live in? Moreover, is that our unquestionable reality from which there is no escape? I can think of many who would argue that it is precisely the role of political engagement to dig ourselves out of unjust and unfair arrangements and envision better ways of ensuring the stability and security of all those in our society. What else do we need states and governments for but to improve our quality of lives?

Moral hazard of free services:

The authors also assert the now familiar retort to any request for free state-led services; that of the moral hazard incurred by non-payment for services; that these services become taken for granted, are abused and may lead to even further costs being incurred within the system. It is an argument that mirrors the now-debunked notion of the ‘tragedy of the commons’; where a shared resource is quickly destroyed by actors acting solely in their self-interest, and without regard for each other. It is a spurious assertion, as it takes for granted that the controls of the system remain the same, and are universally transferrable. Surely the question is what controls, regulations and processes are likely to negate any such moral hazard occurring?

The ‘moral hazard’ argument mirrors the argument that poor, black people in South Africa have “an entitlement complex”; a trope that has come to be mindlessly regurgitated by government and state officials, as well as the middle class citizenry in South Africa. However, even a cursory analysis of the distribution of resources and services in South Africa would reveal precisely the opposite; middle class entitlements are regularly and procedurally given priority, especially at local governance level (i.e. cross-funding of services from wealthy to poor neighbourhoods is fought tooth and nail).

Moreover, should we not study those cases where free service delivery has not been mired by the said moral hazard and learn from them? Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for economics, debunked the notion of the tragedy of the commons by conducting careful research into the co-governance of resources by communities. Should we not be taking a page out of her book rather than merely regarding the phenomenon of moral hazard as permanent, absolute and unchanging. There are countries that offer free education services, as well as other free services (e.g. healthcare, transport); can we not learn from them, devise our own systems and then adapt and evolve them over time? Is the future irrevocably bound to the past, or can we imagine new offerings?

#FeesMustFall is nothing new:

It is true that one can discern a continuity between student protests and protests going back all the way to the Apartheid era, but several factors are worth mentioning in support of the view that it is new and innovative. Firstly, in the past twenty years, government has not been directly challenged and forced to acquiesce in the manner that the students pushed it to in 2015, by organising countrywide to bring institutions to a standstill and marching on parliament, government buildings and centres of power. These events are unprecedented in the new democratic dispensation, even if they may be connected back to the pre-democratic era.  Moreover, the use of disruption as a strategic and tactical measure is new, albeit first introduced by the EFF in parliament. Lastly, the authors’ do not make the connection between global movements such as Occupy, which have adopted new forms of organisation, leadership and engagement (e.g. the rejection of traditional organisation and leadership modalities), and hence fail to understand what is new and innovative about it the student movement in the broader global political context. We live in a world that is increasingly characterised by hyper-connectivity; what happens in one place can easily influence thought and action in other places, no matter how physically remote they may be.

Political commentator points out that it is the postures that have been adopted by the establishment that is in fact old. See his article "Old Postures in New Times: Misreading Protest and Resistance".

Free higher education is prioritised above public schooling by #FMF activists:

In my understanding and reading of the student movement, there is no suggestion that free higher education is a priority above free, quality public schooling. More often than not student activists emphasize the importance of the entire education system, from early childhood development all the way through the higher education. Notwithstanding that many would argue that while the problem with the higher education system is primarily funding, the problem with the schooling system is chronic, systemic under-delivery and under-performance (i.e. the challenges are markedly different), this accusation has been levelled in such a manner as to show up student activists as ‘selfish millennials’; a trope that is repetitively churned out by critics who caricature the student movement. The accusation is a false binary that is repeatedly set up in the imaginations of critics rather than a product of actual engagement with #FMF activist positions.

As one student activist pointed out on social media last year (paraphrased here), nothing prevents others in society from taking up causes that they feel should be prioritised. Indeed it would be welcomed by the student movement if others in society mobilised on the basis of causes and issues that were important to them. The question is, why are these issues only raised as factors in opposition to the cause for free, decolonised higher education? Indeed, this observation and question cuts through to the core of the obfuscation that the establishment has engaged in in dealing with the student movement. Other priority services and the like are invoked only as obstacles to the higher education cause, and not – as they should be – as complementary ones.

Bureaucratic over-reach of government into institutions of higher education:

The authors argue that #FMF has inadvertently given government the power to extend its reach into academia. I agree with this assessment, however it is not bureaucratic overreach that concerns me but political overreach. In reality, the bureaucracies of government and the universities are equally wasteful and unfriendly to those they purport to serve.

Is free education a universal right?

Furthermore, the authors ask, “in what moral universe is it acceptable for “free higher education” to be a legitimate demand as opposed to any number of other pressing social needs in a society still in transition and transformation?” It is a fair question, but the way the authors pose it is rhetorical. It is not posed in relation to how expenditure is currently distributed, or is planned for the future. 
If it were, then it would constitute a question of trade-off between investments.
There is a simple answer to this question, however, that society be responsible for making an input into that decision. Surely it is possible to hold a referendum on whether free higher education (or perhaps a variety of models can be voted upon) is desirable to our society? It would encourage a much-needed public debate on the subject, and help establish what society actually desires. It need not be binding, but it would definitely help to obtain.

The reality is that free access to higher education is not a universal right, but surely what society’s rights are should be determined constitutionally first, and second through consultation with society itself? Or should we leave all our decisions to economists and bureaucrats who weigh up costs and benefits, incentives and penalties, and render us marginal in the decisions that affect us as a society that is constituted of much more than economic constraints and opportunities? 

Concluding Remarks

To return to the quote that this piece began with, what is most striking about the article under discussion in this piece, is that it presents the status quo as constituting a ‘natural order’ of sorts that is governed by economic factors that lie outside of the control of the state, governments and institutions of higher education; that they are subject to exogenous factors that require them to preserve the academic project and its institutional fabric as is. By presenting the debate as a mere choice between free education as a universal right versus having a functional establishment, it devolves the many varied and diverse calls for the transformation of higher education systems (both in terms of funding models and transformation of curricula[ii]), not only in South Africa but abroad, into a topic of discussion that is subject primarily to the push-and-pull, cost-benefit, and budget allocation considerations that govern financial and economic systems. It does little to acknowledge the history, sociology, culture and psychology of the academic project, and what that means for South African society as a whole.

While economic and fiscal factors have their place in the debate, and must be given due consideration, the task of emancipatory politics is precisely to challenge the status quo and to open up the space to establish new possibilities. In this sense, the article does not deal with the core drivers that lie behind the student movement (i.e. free higher education, decolonisation of the curriculum and transformation of its institutions). The authors draw attention to some of the changes that academia has already undergone in service of a transformative agenda (e.g. incorporating oral histories and the like), but the changes they refer to are largely cosmetic in nature and are more likely to be viewed as window-dressing rather than substantive transformation, especially by those who are calling for change.

Moreover, it is worth remembering that reactionary positions tend to overshoot; they defend the status quo even as it is being undermined from underneath them. The ‘establishment’ – and those who occupy it – is/are often the last to pick up on these undercurrents, as they are so fully and wholly convinced of the finality of the status quo; its inflexibility and permanence. The danger in not giving serious consideration to the calls for transformation of the higher education system in South Africa should not be evaluated in isolation from the broader socio-political context that it is occurring in – i.e. widespread political discontent and drastic inequality (the highest in the world according to the World Bank), corruption, maladministration and social malaise – which represents all the conditions and circumstances for a push-back from society. The broader global political context is also sending out these warning signals. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and the rise of right wing parties in Europe, all underline how far from ‘reality’ the establishment was (perhaps still is), and how quickly the rug can be pulled from underneath their feet.

Rather than launching attacks that go to-and-fro from left to right, what is imperative is that the societal mechanisms be set up to help navigate this crisis, as part of the broader set of crises that South Africa faces as a country. The problems that South Africa is facing – i.e. low growth, high unemployment, drastic inequality, maladministration and corruption, failing service delivery mechanisms, lack of government accountability, poor leadership, etc. – are all interlinked and manifest profoundly in the crisis that the higher education system is currently facing. Surely more dialogue, more cooperation, more debate and contestation is necessary to move the situation forward. Surely bold and visionary leadership is required to develop new options and set a new direction. After all, emancipatory politics may not achieve all its ends, and indeed some of them may prove unachievable, but its purpose is to lobby for and help set a new direction, and that is what we should be writing about, thinking about and discussing. Anything less, merely amounts to a stone rattling in a can rolling down the road. 

There is profound discontent in South African society, and in the presence of a profound lack of leadership the political vacuum is bound to be captured by one group or another. Ignoring this reality, and containing the debates over issues that are representative of deeper societal discontent to the confines of one or other disciplinary set of logics, or framing, is bound to fail in the medium and long terms. The question is not if it will fail, but when it will fail. The youth of today are sending a clear message to those in power, not just within institutions of higher learning, but to government, the state and society at large. How closely we listen will determine whether we co-create an antagonistic future, or a future that is brokered through engagement, compromise and creativity.

It is worth mentioning what the left-wing US politician Bernie Sanders, who lost the Democrat nomination to Hillary Clinton in 2016 recently stated in a speech a few days ago,

“We are looking at a totally new political world … If we play by the old rules, we will lose and they will win. Our job is not to play by the old rules.”

In the era we live in, change can happen upon us like a hurricane, and it is patently unwise to continue applying old and outdated sets of logics in the quest to create the new. Lapsing into ‘realism’ of any kind is not devoid of its own moral hazard, primarily that what is ‘real’ depends on who is assessing reality, and by what means they are assessing it; factors that can be wielded towards dramatically different ends where postmodern relativism takes hold. Setting up arguments as though they have an exclusive hold on the ‘truth’ comes with a significant moral hazard of its own. And especially in this era, where ‘alternative facts’ and fake news and opinions dominate, it is prudent to be especially careful when declaring ones opinion as fact or truth. Efforts to declare a monopoly on truth – whether through employing forms of realism or other tactics – are more likely to increase polarisation and deafness to opposing views.

Moreover, positioning the debate around that of morality – a theme which runs through the article – is itself questionable. Morality is relative, and varies depending on what one’s values, beliefs and norms are. As such it is a poor compass for an argument in this debate. The debate should rather revolve around issues of principle. While morality is relative, and will always be, matters of principle are those that are determined by what we can all find agreement around. As such, we are in fact debating a matter of principle when we debate whether a society chooses to adopt free higher education as a basic right.

Lastly, the authors lament the polarisation between left and right in the debate. However, the tone they adopt, issuing accusations that those who differ in opinion from them are being “dishonest”, “disingenuous” and so forth, lends itself to further polarisation. This is especially the case because the points of disagreement revolve around matters of opinion, and not of fact. It is perhaps worth remembering that the point of a debate is not just to win over the audience, but to win over those whom one is debating against; achieving that renders debate far more powerful than a winner-loser approach.

And to be sure, the contributions to this debate are many and varied in opinion and approach, as it rightly should be if we are to formulate an intelligent way forward. All it requires, is the ability to debate one’s point vigorously while keeping an open mind to the opinions of others. This is a failing that extends beyond this article, and student activists are often themselves equally guilty of it. Humility in the face of complex issues and challenges is undoubtedly beneficial; we are all fallible and need to look to each other to highlight our blind spots. In keeping with that, it is perhaps prudent to declare that this piece itself is but an opinion piece, and should be regarded as such; a contribution to a debate that makes no claim to a monopoly on the ‘truth’.


Note: This article was first published on 21 February 2017, and was lightly edited on 23 February 2017.

Some further articles and reports on service delivery protests:

[i] That is, whether through reserves or networks: although it must be pointed out that universities already do this in great measure.
[ii]  For example, being inclusive of and accommodating; gender, indigenous knowledge systems, decolonisation of curricula, transformation of institutions, inter- and trans-disciplinarity, sustainability discourses, etc.

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