The recent #feesmustfall movement in South Africa has got the nation and everyone talking about access to higher education and the needed funding mechanism which will be sustainable. It is also imperative that as a country we look into finding a balance between higher education funding and other priorities like healthcare and Early Childhood Development. The #feesmustfall call for free education is genuine and long overdue as the country needs to support those who cannot afford exorbitant university fees.
The South African government has even set-up a fees commission to research the feasibility of fee free tertiary education. One thing I find very surprising is that the commission or the leaders of the #Feesmustfall movement are not questioning the university system itself. Is it still relevant in helping the country achieve radical social change? We also need to remember that universities were created by people who had a narrow vision of only educating the elite. Universities were based and still are based on exclusivity.
Why students go to university?
As people we do not need to go to university but all we want is to have good education and a good life. There is a difference between being educated and being schooled. The holy grail of living is being happy, to think critically and independently, being able to provide for their family and also to contribute positively to society. The current societal norm requires that for one to get a good life a degree is vital for success. To create some context, South Africa had a very flourishing farming and manufacturing sector and many did not need to go to universities. Many would normally go for vocational training for maybe 2 years and get absorbed in the textile or steel industries. They would live a normal life and earn a decent salary and were able to provide for their families. Unfortunately those industries have died due to cheap Chinese imports. It seems the poultry industry might be following suit.
This now leaves young South Africans with no options but to get into university with a hope of finding a job in a fancy company in Sandton hence the good life. This has created a huge pressure on the higher education system & exposed some of the issues that need to be addressed like decolonization of the sector, access for the poor, and inadequate funding from government.
The other questions we should also be asking ourselves even in the commission set up are; Are universities still relevant in the 21st century (an era of automation), are they producing graduates to be entrepreneurs or employees, why is there a lack of innovation in the education sector, why are the fees always going up, what kind of skills do we need as a country in the next 20-50 years and are universities producing them? I think the issue of finding more money into funding universities without answering the above questions would be like trying to get Nokia 3310 to take pictures. No matter how much money you pump into it, Nokia3310 will not take pictures.
The current education system was designed hundreds of years ago and that was before the advent of internet, Facebook, Skype, Google, AI, smartphones etc. These technologies have disrupted almost all other industries from telecommunications, post office, banking and others but education system remains stagnant. Technology has made communication almost free, through platforms like Skype & WhatsApp; it has made taking pictures free. Only those who knew the company Kodak will agree with me that pictures were not free then but today we take them for granted. Sharing pictures also is now free through social media platforms. Exponential technologies have democratized and demonetize these industries. We need to ask ourselves why is exponential technologies not democratizing & demonetizing our education system.
Collaboration key to Innovation
In 2015, I organized a colloquium titled “How we can use technology to educate every single child in Africa”. I invited different stakeholders from government, business, and civil society. Gauteng MEC Panyaza Lesufi, and then CEO of Barclays Africa CIB Stephan van Coller gave keynotes. The idea was to get everyone in the room to find a common solution on how we can leverage technology to demonetize and democratize quality education. Technology can open up the system and improve quality.
The reality is that High Education will remain stagnant in innovation if we expect academics or experts who are protecting the status quo to provide solutions. Like all other industries they get disrupted by outsiders. Banking is being disrupted by non-bankers who found FinTech start-ups like PayPal or YOCO. Automobile & space exploration industries are being disrupted by Elon Musk through his companies Tesla motors & SpaceX. Nokia was disrupted by BlackBerry and in turn was disrupted by iPhones. Higher education also will need outsiders to disrupt and make it affordable, accessible and quality.
Academics are stifling innovation in Higher Education
When Elon Musk wanted to start his space exploration company, SpaceX, many insiders or so-called “experts” told him he will not succeed in Space. Today SpaceX is the most innovative and disruptive space company. Those expert engineers, some with PhDs in the field were in the comfort zone and had resigned to how things are done for decades and were no longer innovating. SpaceX, an outsider, came and disrupted the industry and designed rockets that land and slashed launching costs by a factor of at least 5. Now SpaceX is leading the race to colonize Mars beating governments that have been trying for more than 50 years.
Most academics or HE experts are like Space exploration experts as they are fine with the status quo. Any new idea or better way of doing things in higher education that is not comfortable or similar to their modus operandi is deemed weak or they say it won’t work. Outsiders should not consult experts but disrupt higher education and make it relevant for all young South Africans.