YONELA DIKO: Education should not be commoditised

OPINION

The primary task of education is to develop a critical thinking and active citizenry. Education is not just a useful tool to acquire for trading at the market place.

This commodification of education has resulted in its monetisation, which has led to mass exclusion, high indebtedness of those who manage to get in, and has robbed society of much input from others whom, through their education, would give society a meaningful contribution.

If education is supposed to bring more freedom to an individual and then allow that individual to function better in society, only to make him an economic player who must give back the investment, shortchanges all of society, turning an otherwise active participatory citizen in society to a tool of trade functioning only at the mercy of capital.

This commodification has reduced the significance of education and has moved it from being of great social value to focusing only on its economic value acquired and used to bargain for an income. Education has become simply an economic investment used to draw economic returns and not a process of developing a human being for wider social development.

Citizens then spend all their lives focusing on being economically productive individuals through education and the comforts of post-education life, with less to no participation in any affairs of society. They only focus on contributions that bring monetary return.

PURPOSE OF EDUCATION

Education is important for the country's economic development only as a component of a larger productive use in the shaping of an individual as a member of society.

This narrow approach to education has forced students to certain fields of study as dictated by markets or by funders. Although some education fields have great social value, they may not fit the investment expectations of the funders who may drive students to fields they hope will make them money in the market place.

It must be made clear at all material times that the purpose of education is to develop active citizens with the skill and competency to engage in the affairs of life and society and not economic interests. The private sector therefore must only participate in education as part of that goal, voluntarily and not because it wants to control education outcomes

UNIVERSITY FUNDING

Tuition fees of higher education have been escalating at an alarming pace, while government has been cutting its spend on higher education, leaving gaps for private funding with private interests. This naturally has pushed some universities to funding relationships with private companies they may not desire. This influences curricula to be more market oriented, and research to serve market interests.

Turning education from a public good with great social value into a private good with only economic value has had great implications on its funding.

It is said that 'He who pays the piper calls the tune'. This is no truer than in the state of our education, where private funding now controls the content of research, academic choices, who sits on university councils and which universities succeed and which ones fall behind.

The combination of increasing fees and decreasing public education spending has devastating consequences for poor students. This results in two critical problems: financial exclusion of many students, and forcing others into deals and friendships they do no desire in order to get the financial help they need for an increasingly unaffordable higher education.

Universities in South Africa that have a historical advantage, built as they were by a state that wanted to advantage some over others, have built millions of now well-positioned alumni, who are leading private corporate firms, who then pump money back to these institutions to ensure their first mover advantage is maintained. Universities like UCT are able to raise unmatched funding from private sources with historical links to the university, ensuring they are able to pay academics high salaries, are able to fund their research, attracting some of the best scientists and lecturers in the world.

This also means these institutions are able to buy assets which then generate their own money, making them less reliant on government subsidies and funding.

The rest of the institutions (with the exception of Wits, Rhodes, University of Pretoria and most likely the new Afrikaans university) are dependent on student tuition to operate and given that the rich students would be in the already financially endowed institutions because they are deemed to be elite, the rest of the institutions are only left with poor students who struggle with tuition.

QUALITY OF EDUCATION

While the quality of academics in all these institutions may well not be too different, what separates them is funding to produce high-end academic output and to ensure students are not distracted by social challenges.

Financially endowed institutions also have the capacity to outsource many activities that are not academic-related, leaving their academics with only two responsibilities: teaching and research.

Unfortunately, the obsession with generating revenue means every university must consider all its decisions through the eyes of wealth generation, from students they accept, to who sits in council, and which academics are employed.

Universities now employ managements with corporate backgrounds in order to orientate universities to a corporate approach in how they run institutions, with income generation and profits as core drivers. Simply put, all universities are in the business of looking for students who can pay fees, and the richer the students (judged through the high schools they are from) these take priority. Given the rules that allow international students to be charged more and in full, this has become a clear source of income.

Local students who are poor stand at the bottom of the admission line, until the university is sure it can cover its overheads with the paying students. This leaves the poor students' admissions to universities tentative and circumstantial, if not an inconvenience.

Other experts have observed the mischief of some universities who set their tuition fees too high, more as a ploy to portray non-existent academic superiority over other institutions in order to attract the richer, and the trend to chase elite institution students, even though sometimes they offer them discounts once accepted.

The result is that in South Africa, only four to five universities are financially stable and not tuition dependent. The rest face a never-ending struggle, unable to attract the rich students, unable to raise funding from private institutions and because they are left with poor students, unable to run themselves like businesses and exclude those who can't pay.

A HUMAN RIGHT

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights declared education as a human right.

Education benefits all society, and is not just an individual acquisition which is of no value to the collective. Society benefits through the education of individuals, the creative, the social cohesion, the knowledge and resilience, and the prosperity. The creative opens new opportunities for more people and give society a leap forward and mobility.

Education is a public good and government must fund it to ensure equitable and fair access to it for the benefit of all society.

Yonela Diko is the former spokesperson to the Minister of Human Settlements, Water and Sanitation. You can follow him on Twitter: @yonela_diko

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