So, to Johannesburg, where South African Education Minister (and Communist Party chief) Blade Nzimande finally announced the government’s decision on tuition for next year. He was in a tricky place: students are still demanding free tuition (see my previous story on the Fees Must Fall movement here) and will not accept a hike in fees. Meanwhile, universities are quite rightly feeling very stretched (it’s tough trying to maintain developed-world caliber institutions on a tax base which is only partially of the developed-world): with inflation running at around 6.5%, a fee freeze would amount to a substantial cut in real income.
So what did the minister do? He pulled an Ontario (or a Chile, or a Clinton, if you prefer). Tuition to rise, but students from families with income of R600,000 or less (roughly C$56,000, or US$43,000) would be exempt from paying the higher tuition. Who exactly was going to verify students’ income is a bit of a mystery since the cut-off for student financial aid in South Africa is considerably below R600,000 (a justified cause of further student complaint), but no matter. The basic idea was clear: the well-off will pay, the needy will not. The exact amount extra they would pay? That would be up to individual universities. They could set their own tuition but were strongly advised not to try increasing fees by more than 8%.
It took student unions less than five seconds to find this inadequate and to denounce the government. Several unions have threatened to boycott classes if their institution raised fees.
This raises an interesting question. Why, if students in Chile and Ontario are claiming victory (or partial victory at least) over their fee regimens, do South African students reject it? Well, context is everything. The key here is government legitimacy, or lack thereof.
Let’s take the Charest government in the Spring of 2012. The tuition fee increase that the government proposed was not excessive, and poorer students in fact might have been better off once tax credits were factored in. But absolutely no one paid the slightest bit of attention to the policy details. This was a government that had outstayed its welcome, and was badly tarred by corruption scandals (my favourite joke from that spring: what’s the difference between a student leader and a Montreal mafia boss? Only one of them has to forswear violence in order to get a meeting with the Minister of Education). It had a good, saleable plan, but literally no political capital on which to draw. The plan, as we all know, failed.
(By the by, this is why, if the Couillard government is going to move on tuition fees, it’s going to have to do it this year. Their window is closing.)
I could go down the list here. The big anti-tuition fee protests that got the President of South Korea to promise to reduce tuition in the spring of 2011? That was at the tail end of a profoundly unpopular Presidency (though to be fair in Korea it’s the rare presidency that doesn’t end in profound unpopularity). The Chilean tuition protests of 2011-2? Also at the end of an unpopular presidency. By contrast, the largest tuition fee increase in the history of the world – the increase announced for England in the fall of 2010 – was essentially met with only a single rally, in part because the measure was introduced by a brand-new government which led in the polls. Basically, you need “social license” in order to do something unpopular on tuition fees. Some governments have it, others don’t.
The South African government is in precisely this kind of legitimacy crisis right now. It is not a simple matter of President Zuma’s unpopularity, though his increasingly kleptocratic regime is profoundly unhelpful. It’s a bigger crisis of post-apartheid society. Formal racial equality exists, but equality in economic opportunity, equality in educational opportunity: those are still very far away and in many ways are not much better than they were 20 years ago. Today’s youth, born after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, no longer feel much loyalty to the ANC as the leader of “the struggle”. They simply see the party as being incompetent, corrupt, and incapable of delivering a better and more equal society.
And it’s that anger, that rage, which is driving the #feesmustfall movement. I think there’s a real chance this won’t end well; there has already been a serious uptick in violence on South African campuses. South Africa’s universities, unfortunately, may end up as collateral damage in a larger fight for the country’s future.