#feesmustfall: now #putthemoneytowork

All last week I was dreading a tweet or an image that a student had been hurt or even killed in the fees protests. How it didn’t happen was extraordinary.

South Africa has now lost an academic week. That sounds insignificant when measured against the students’ achievement of standing up and being noticed. They got what they wanted. Well done! I would doff my hat if I had one.

Now as the Universities return to the academic project, there are some sobering factors to consider.

  • The universities have hemorrhaged the very millions that could be used to contain fees.
  • Graduates who will be starting careers as early as 1 December may have to wait. Or even miss out on opportunities completely.

And then come the unknown issues.

Many parents and prospective students for the 2016 academic year must be thinking ‘Stuff this for a lark! I’m not putting my head in that beehive. There are other alternatives such as private colleges and distance based education. Or even a gap year.’

If the current crisis leads to a decline in enrollments for 2016 the universities are going to be in serious financial trouble. The budgets and fees for 2016 are set and universities can do little to reduce costs in the short term. Who is going to finance that?

But it goes further than that. A lot further.

I am sure many academics have spent the week off polishing their CV’s. In short, nerds are seriously not into conflict, unless it is within the confines of higher degrees committee debate. That’s one of the reasons they stayed in academia in the first place.

The grey haired academics have little option to see it through to retirement. Some will look at early retirement at 60.

But the younger academics are the ones I am worried about.

Academic salaries have never been competitive. So a young good mind, with academic potential has always been difficult to retain at a university. Talking to young students and convincing them about the benefits of an academic career; well I might as well convince Hollywood that I am the next answer to Tom Cruise.

To be taken seriously in academia today you must not only have rafts of degrees and published papers, international experience is also a prerequisite. Gone are the days when universities ‘grow their own timber.’ So the young aspirant academic already has exposure to international academia. There is little difficulty in finding a university home somewhere else. And staying there forever. For some RSA academics this is as easy sending an email and getting on a plane.

And then comes the third stream income of universities. That’s stuff like research grants, partnerships, endowments, bequests etc.

Geriatric alumni are apparently already writing codicils to their wills leaving their money to the SPCA rather than their alma mater. That’s one thing. But the big money is in the partnerships with business. That’s big stuff in balancing university budgets.

Now that’s what’s bugging me this morning. We hope to solve the fee crisis quite quickly. But, afterwards, will the university campus be a proposition for students, staff and benefactors?

I don’t know the answer. Nobody does. All I can say though is that it will take extraordinary leadership to address it.

Some hard choices will have to be made and as my colleague, Professor Owen Skae (@owenskae), wrote not so long ago (Great leaders make hard choices), it is the hard choices that define us.

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