February 17th 2018

Society / Education

Strike at Wits University reveals the biting austerity in African varsities

The strike bore resemblance to current crisis of education in Kenya. The administration was responding to a structural condition of diminished financing for education amid growing costs of maintaining universities.

By Gertrude KirengaTuesday, 04 Oct 2016 16:48 EAT

With the South African television company Multichoice holding a substantial chunk of Kenya's digital TV viewing market, many Kenyans are getting used to watching top South African news on SABC, which is carried free by Multichoice channels like DStv.

And so it was that today's protest by students at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg received tremendous attention in Kenya. The protest, dubbed ‘fees must fall”, was in response to the announcement by South Africa's higher education minister Blade Nzimande that university fees would be raised next year.

Though the minister decreed a "no more than 8%" increase the 2017 academic year, the students and indeed many South Africans detested the proposal, which is the latest in a string of austerity measures implemented in the country's higher education.

The protesting students demanded a 0% increase and others reiterated their call for free education for all - which Nzimande said was not affordable. Although activism in South African universities is somewhat receding, according to analysts there, the protests were the largest in recent months. Students hauled, intimidated and kicked out lecturers and staff who were preparing to re-open the institution, which was closed following a spate of protests last week.

One of the student leaders, Busisiwe Seabe, while addressing the media (Al Jazeera) from a police van where she was being held, said their message was clear about the need to keep university education affordable. Police went after protesting students and dispersed them by firing stun grenades to enforce the university management's decision to continue with classes.

The university believes the majority of students want to resume learning activities. It conducted a poll after they received communication from a big number of concerned staff, students and parents asking that they intervene in the ongoing heated protests at the campus. 

Preliminary results from the poll taken by the university community to determine whether protests should come to a halt, showed that 91 percent of staff members who took part wanted the academic programme to resume the following day. The poll was taken on Thursday and about 2,200 staff members cast their vote. Armed with the poll, the university announced that all academic activity would resume this week and called police to campus to tackle the students.

The university’s Shirona Patel said: “Following the harassment of some staff, the university has been left with no choice but to open with a full security contingent throughout our campuses.” Patel warned that students found  breaking the law will be held responsible. “Anyone caught contravening any university rule or court interdict or infringing on the rights of others will immediately be held accountable for their actions and may face criminal charges.”

However, most of the students interviewed were perplexed that they were being accused of violating interdicts they hadn't even seen. Many expressed shock that they were not being allowed even to access the Great Hall, the most important public space in the campus.

The strike bore resemblance to current crisis of education in Kenya. The administration was responding to a structural condition of diminished financing for education amid growing costs of maintaining universities. In Kenya, Interior minister Joseph Nkaissery recently proposed that police officers would be deployed in campuses and schools. But if the example witnessed today at Wits was anything to go by, it portends more problems than it can resolve.

The writer is an MSc student in applied statistics at JKUAT and researcher at the Kenya Free Press

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