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If you want "Higher Education" - you should pay for it!

I have mentione my great-granny before. So, for those of you have followed my blog posts for a while, I apologise for any unnecessary repetition.


Oumie was a great old dame. About as traditional as they come, of “Boer royalty” (Steyn decent) and a whiskey drinking, cigarette smoking, hair-getting-done-ing with a slew of gentlemen-a-courting kind of gal. Her brain remained remarkably astute until she passed away at ninety-nine years old, her tongue remained as articulate and pointedly honest as ever as well.

She had many a truism that remain ingrained in her grandchildren to this day. Some of her wisdom seems outdated and quite sexist now, like “Never give up a seat next to your husband to another woman,” or “Never accept an alcoholic beverage unless it has been poured for you by a gentleman.” But she has some rules that were and are true to human nature and remain true always.

The one that I have been hearing repeated in my memory over and over recently, is that nothing in life is for free. She hardly ever gave things away. Naturally, there was charity and church related giving, but when she did a cupboard clean up and her cleaner asked about something, she would sell it to her fair and square; for a token (hugely undervalued) price. “You want this tea set? You can have it for ten Rands.” Her reasoning for this was that the cleaner needed to maintain some dignity and also understand the value of her possessions.

Her aim was to ensure that both parties understood that the exchange held value and dignity for each participant. It didn’t matter to her that her cleaner would buy a genuine woollen coat for a meagre five Rand. To her, the price was inconsequential. It was symbolic of the greater understanding that nothing in life is for free, and both parties need to remain dignified.

This ideology is engrained in all the women in my family. So clearly, I am baffled by the #FEESMUSTFALL movement.

Some “ground work” first:

Basic education, in the form of prep and possibly high school, are probably as close to a human right as basic amenities like running water and a roof over one’s head. If at all possible, these things should be given out wherever possible, for no fee where necessary.

Any person who can think and needs to function in a working society should be able to learn to read and write, do basic math, understand some history and geography.

Living in this century may even necessitate learning some computer skills.

Its not fair to expect people to exist in an aspiring first-world society and then deprive them of these basic tools.

Being able to work is also a basic human prerequisite, should one have the ability to do so. Why, well because food costs money and food is essential.

But a higher education in the form of a university degree or tertiary qualification is not a basic human right. It is a luxury. It is a privilege. And privilege should not be given away for free.

An aspiration to have a career as a doctor, an accountant, an engineer or an advertising exec does not automatically equal your right to do so. And certainly not for free.

When a student works well at university and his or her marks are pretty good, the annual fees paid to study their chosen degree potentially decrease through subsidies and rewards.

When a pupil finishes Matric with a good set of marks and applies to university or bank for financial assistance, often it is granted. Said student can then maintain these marks and in doing so, maintain a reduced fee. Companies also offer student assistance in various forms, for deserving students.

The higher up said student goes in the educational chain, the less he or she could end up paying because the subjects become more specialised and fewer are offered. An excellent student could, in theory, end up obtaining on the basis of their efforts alone, a Masters or Doctorate for almost, if not entirely, free. Sometimes they may even have a stipend paid towards their field of study. Sometimes the university offers a scholarship and pays them to continue their study at their institution.

There is a reason most lottery winners are broke again within a year. There is a reason why finer quality chocolate costs more than synthetic rubbish. Nothing of any value – real value – in this life, comes cheaply or easily. And a higher education is of enormous value, and as it should, costs dearly.

However, we have a huge quantum of deserving students unable to afford this privilege. And here government and the private sector need to step up to the plate.

It’s a double-edged sword, which stems from various deep-rooted problems South Africa is facing at the moment.

Firstly, our youth have a serious spirit of entitlement. They have been promised by our leaders that they will have a better future than our past. Which is a commendable ideal but falling dismally short in execution. They aspire to be like the people they see on television, or hear about on the news. I remember my teaching days, when a youngster who could hardly spell his name correctly, proudly told me that he was going to be a CA (chartered accountant) because then he would be rich. Many a CA would tell him that the two are not necessarily interchangeable. But I wanted to tell him that he should probably aspire to do something more practical, a craft or a skill, which would hone his love for sketching and his practical mind, negating his lack of academic/book prowess and allowing him to still contribute meaningfully to society. And possibly earn a decent salary doing so.

This little guy epitomised the mindset I came across far too often in almost a decade of working in schools. He felt he was entitled to wealth and automatic wealth came with a degree in accounting. Or a career as an advertising exec, or as a lawyer, or as a doctor.  

You do not have an automatic right to be rich simply because you have a degree. In fact, being wealthy is such a rare anomaly that a degree is merely the tip of the iceberg in most cases. But these kids want instant gratification; they want what advertising promises them and they want it now. Don’t dare let them know that a newly qualified doctor earns marginally more than a petrol pump attendant for at least a year.     

There is also the sentiment that too much of a good thing is a bad thing.

If we hand out degrees on street corners like free newspapers, we could well end up with street sweepers and rubbish collectors who have tertiary qualifications. The misconception that a degree automatically equals a job in that field is completely misguided. It’s based on the past where a degree was a rarity, a specialised qualification obtained by the few, not the masses. This is also a lie our youngsters are encouraged to believe. Ask the thousands of students who scrape through university and obtain a B.Com degree, and then start applying for jobs, only to find that they are once again, amongst the masses and terribly wanting. When the masses are qualified, it does not mean that the masses will automatically get jobs. It means that something that was once a rare commodity has become commonplace.  

The fact that they should perhaps not have been admitted to university in the first place is also reason to object to free education. We are simply not all university candidates.

There are different kinds of smart in the world. To get a degree, you need a certain level of book smarts, academic skill, diligence and ability to sustain yourself through years of demanding and often tiring work. Yes, there is a misconception that ‘university smart’ is the best kind of smart, but that is rubbish. The world is changing at such a rapid rate that institutions such as universities will battle to keep up with the skills required to train professionals in fields that evolve on an almost daily basis.

But I digress.

Society needs each and every different kind of smart to sustain itself. But not all versions of ‘smart’ or ‘skill’ are university qualifiers. The trades of plumbing, electricians, builders and craftsmen, are becoming a dwindling field or career path. But what are we going to do when there are no more skilled plumbers, painters, electricians or builders? Anyone who has ever paid a skilled craftsman knows that they certainly don’t earn a pittance. And their skill offers an enormous value to society.

Where would we be without hairdressers, make-up artists, seamstresses, beauticians? Ugly. That’s where. And the magazine industry would suffer. As would the film and television industry. Where would we be without bakers, chefs, sommeliers or café owners? Hungry and thirsty. That’s where. 

Then you look to new careers of computer animators and digital designers and all those fields that have hardly been tapped in to yet… the future is ripe and uncertain. Shakespeare and Resistance Poetry are not enough to equip you to work in that future. In fact, they are sorely lacking.

But when you give someone something for free, with the label attached that it is somehow a “better” qualification, even when they are not academically equipped for the task, or financially able to do it either, you are setting them up for failure. You are creating the perfect scenario for them to feel short-changed, angry and deprived. You are asking for a riot.

Imagine someone giving you a Lear jet. And by you, I mean the normal reader who is not a Lear jet pilot or owner, nor do I mean Mr Zuma. It costs roughly R25’000 per flight, simply to start it and take it out somewhere. Then you need to train as a pilot yourself or hire one at great expense, since the usual Code 8 won’t do. And then of course, you need to have places you’d like to go.

Very few of you/us, normal readers, would actually really want a gift like that. Myself included. But it sounds pretty awesome when you say, “I own a Lear jet.” And it sounds amazingly generous for someone to announce: “I just gave this person a Lear jet.”

But perhaps that example is a stretch too far.

Let’s say they offer to give you a free car. An Uno. Nothing fancy. But you have no money for fuel. And no driver’s licence as yet. Well, then they may as well have given you a Lear jet. It is equally useless and will never be fully appreciated. An attempt at a university degree to a person who is not actually academically minded or in a position to complete it successfully is as constructive as a Lear jet would be to you or me. Which is: not much at all.

A degree is not a freebie condom handed out liberally in public washrooms. And given out as easily and as frivoulously is as helpful or beneficial as those condoms once dished out by government with the instructions stapled through the latex.

Our president and his government is another reason this problem has been perpetuated in South Africa. Mr Zuma has no education of which to boast. He has never shown any inspiration to aspire towards obtaining a Matric, a diploma, a degree, despite now having the means and opportunity to do so. As well as the incentive, if he took the mockery his lack of education has subjected him to seriously, he should by now have at least completed a Matric. But no. It serves no purpose to him and therefore holds no value.   

His enormous parliament is not really the best-qualified group of owls around either. When we examine the ANC’s budget year after year, education has never been high up on the priority list and understandably so: why prioritise something you see no value in? And how can you value something you have no experience of? Hence the fact that you feel it’s okay to give it away for free.

Like the new home owners who decide to rip up carpets and find a century old wooden floor beneath the acrylic fibres. Some would rip the wood out just as fast only to replace it with more acrylic fibre. While others would find a craftsman who can make the wood shine again, thereby bringing both value and authenticity to the home.

Our president would probably replace the wooden floor with linoleum tiles, given half the chance. Or based on Nkandla, perhaps turn a century old wooden floor into that of a barn for goats. And that is how he views education, I guess, based purely on his actions prior and reactions to the #FEESMUSTFALL protests. Higher education is to him what an unused set of golf clubs is to me: I don’t want it, need it or value it, so I may as well give it away.

But higher education, for those who truly desire it and are able to obtain it, is a jewel more precious than any diamond. It is a source of immense pride and security. It is more than a piece of paper supposedly to open career doors for you, it is a sense of accomplishment and knowing that you were willing to make the necessary sacrifices, put in the hard work and achieve the goal laid out before you years before. And by this I include those who have trained in a craft or skill that sets them apart: chefs, electricians, builders, interior designers etc.

So, what of those who can’t afford it? Well, that’s where the government should step up with serious funding. And so should private business. Offer a reduction in fees, scholarships, subsidies and scaled payment plans. Just like when a person goes to a government hospital and pays according to what they can afford, universities should be looking in to the same systems. Just as they do at Ivy League universities in the USA. Yeah sure, it might not be fair to the kids who can afford and do pay full fees, but that is a different argument. Maybe we/the government /the university should incentivise students for attending class, thereby reducing the hangover days or extended holidays so often taken by the privileged elite.

Here’s a truly novel thought: as with you do with gym memberships linked to medical aid rewards schemes, reward hard work and good results at university. Go to gym twenty times a month, for example, and you get cash back at the end of the month (virtually). Attend all classes, maintain a steady grade in assessments and also get a reduction of fees. To one pupil – a ten Rand offering is as substantial as to the next who is paying ten thousand Rand.

Tell a parent who can afford full fees for their child that they are paying full fees because little Johnny is taking days off to play golf, while his equally ‘well-off’ girlfriend Jamima is getting away with paying largely reduced fees because she doesn’t play golf and actually attends classes and submits assignments on time, and perhaps parents would get involved too. Just as my great granny’s house cleaner spent five Rand buying an item of clothing worth five hundred. To each person involved, the proportionate cost is the same.      

What next? Well? Instead of lowering the pass mark to make it seem more obtainable, raise it. Instead of giving it away to any person who applies, make access more difficult. When a graduate obtains their degree, as with the days of old, it should be a piece of paper that actually sets them apart. It is ridiculous that our graduates are not even guaranteed a job interview, let alone a job, and that needs to change. Walking across that stage to collect the formal document, to the chorus of Gaudiamus Igitur, should be the moment where one is bursting with such self-satisfaction and thankfulness that it can hardly be contained. It should be a special feat. It should be the start of a journey to success.

Or at least it was when the quantity of degreed individuals in the world was around five percent. That was when a degree dramatically increased your chances of employment, even when it was a ‘lowly’ three-year Bachelor of Commerce. Because the piece of paper meant so much more than three years of study, it meant an education in the broadest sense of the word. It meant hours of late night research. It meant working waitering jobs to fund your textbooks. It meant driving a skadonk that’s roadworthiness was questionable at best, because all you needed was four wheels to get you to class. It meant you set a goal and worked hard to achieve it.

Making education cheap and easy to obtain is like prostituting your virginal daughter. Something that held value, great worth and dignity, becomes a vapour, a meaningless imitation or substitute for what you really are after.

Big businesses could offer paid apprenticeships again and thereby allow some forms of higher education to actually double as employment, which is empowering in and of itself. The old concept of “working your way up the ladder” is also lost to a generation of immediate gratification and material ambitions.

The #FEESMUSTFALL movement is grossly misguided, it should be #FAIRFEESFORALL.

Imagine forty million Fiat Unos suddenly filling our roads, with unlicensed drivers, unfueled engines. It would be as much of a joke as allowing every person who applies to a university free admission. Up the ante. Make the entrance gate narrower. THEN. Allow the privileged kids to get a reduction for good marks too. Allow the disadvantaged kids to pay according to what they can afford, as they would pay accordingly in a government hospital. But for goodness sake: when you start dishing out something as valuable as a degree to students, and then they are still ending up unemployed and broke because they’re paying it off, you must surely expect picketing outside parliament? All the while those uneducated and entitled politicians inside are wondering, “Why all the fuss over something as silly as a university degree?”

Had they themselves worked hard and paid for a degree, our president especially, he would know that the disgruntled yout asking for free education are actually asking for a country where their degrees will mean something. They are asking for the better life they were promised. Problem is: they are looking to a government that values private jets and expensive fire pits over knowledge, wisdom and skills; they are idolising celebrities who seem to have it all with very little effort, and wondering why their lives can't be that easy; and they are wrongly assuming that it is their financially strapped state that is keeping them uneducated and unemployed. It has nothing to do with intellectual ability, work ethic, diligence or discipline.  

Ah, if only they could get university education for free, then... and only then... would all their problems be solved.



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