A Tale of Two University Systems

I spoke before of the wonderful opportunity that I had to tour the University of Cape Town Libraries when I was in South Africa in August. I fell in love with the vibrancy of the University of Cape Town campus in the short time I was on it. A few weeks ago, when South African university administrators announced the need for fees to rise some 10% the next year and the students reacted with peaceful, large scale protests, I watched with sympathy of both sides of the issue. I feel sympathy for universities who have seen their budgets severely cut by the government at the same time the South African rand has lost significant value versus the US Dollar, meaning that costs are significantly greater. At the same time, I feel incredible sympathy for South African students attempting to get an education that seems cost prohibitive for most families. In South Africa only 4% of the population has an income greater than 500,000 ZAR per year ($36,590.60 per year at the exchange rate I just checked). So imagine having to pay a university fee for one child of 150,000 ZAR per year. Imagine being a poor black South African with no access to any kind of financing except the most predatory kind. Absolutely, I stood with the students in the #feesmustfall movement, and most university faculty and staff stood with students too. Truly, the accountable party here is the South African government that has slashed spending on higher education. Today, after meeting with university administrators President Zuma announced, in a small victory for the students that fees for 2016-2017 would remain unchanged. So certainly, the movement could count some success, even though the larger issue, the lack of necessary government spending on higher education, largely has remained unaddressed. Sadly, the universities, seeking to provide outstanding higher education to students appear to be the losers here – they won’t charge higher fees, but the cannot expect higher levels of support from the South African government either.

Nonetheless, it has been moving for me seeing the pictures and reading the accounts of the #feesmustfall movement. It has been moving to read the support of academics for democratizing higher education and making it more accessible to all regardless of race or income level. It is moving to see young people come together and take action against entrenched political forces to demand a better future. It has been moving to see students of all socio-economic groups and races come together and work on behalf of a common goal. I think about those beautiful students that I saw when I visited the campus and the power through unity they showed, and wow, I would be proud to teach those kids. I would be proud that those kids were representing my country.

I cannot help but contrast that with what has been going on in my own state with my own university system. Today, it was announced that a political hack from the Bush Administration would be our next university system president. Yes, there has been dissention about the process of the Board of Governors selecting this person. Yes, there has been dissention about the politicization of the Board of Governors in the past five years that the Republicans have controlled the NC General Assembly. Yes, people have grumbled when successive legislative budgets have cut university budgets leading to higher tuition costs for all students. Yes, we have grumbled when the legislature told us that we couldn’t use a higher percentage of state funding for need-based financial aid. We have been disillusioned about it all. But where is the outcry like in South Africa? Where is the coordinated action? Where is the unity? We shrug our shoulders and write comments and editorials in the News and Observer and then we just roll our eyes and accept it. At this place that we call “The University of the People”, we hold our noses but ultimately fall in line with the changing face of higher education in this state. I wonder what extremes it will take for us to be like those students, parents, and academics in South Africa and demand loudly and uniformly until our voices are heard by those in power something different. I don’t know if that is even possible in our American oligarchy anymore. I don’t know if it is that the people just truly lack any power anymore or if it is rather that we are too lazy to try to wield our power anymore.

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