Goal is free education, but path is debatable

In the higher education crisis, so many perceptions, opinions and reactions are bouncing about and clashing with one another that we are getting nowhere.

Clearly, there is no simple solution but cabinet ministers, university heads, lecturers, students, union members, parents and the rest of society urgently need to come together to try to find common ground.

It would require some to leave their fixed positions and egos at the door and work in the best interests of our universities and country. To achieve this, we have to draw on SA’s most skilled mediators, of whom there are many, to try to bring everyone to a workable resolution.

We do not have time on our side. The process is so fractured right now that certain quarters believe the best alternative to a negotiated agreement (Batna) is for universities to close for a period, double up on security or get tough on dissenting voices and return to business as usual; or that the state must just cough up because education should be free for all, regardless of the country’s ability to pay.

Some commentators make the solution sound so simple that many wonder what the fuss is about. However, pursuing any of these actions without considering the root causes and ramifications would be disastrous in a number of ways.

Journalism and media professor Jane Duncan of the University of Johannesburg eloquently describes in an article in The Conversation Africa, entitled “Why student protests have turned violent”, how securitised approaches reap the whirlwind.

And the Wits University opinion poll that indicated the majority of students want the university to remain open (with security) does not get to the root of the issue.

The co-founders of Harvard’s programme on negotiation, Roger Fisher and William Ury, who coined Batna, explain that conflicting parties cannot make a wise decision about whether to accept a negotiated agreement or to walk away from it, unless they know what their Batna is — what their best alternatives are, and what is at risk if a compromise or negotiated agreement is not reached.

Having a good Batna increases your negotiating power as you do not need to concede as much. In SA’s higher education crisis, we do not have a good alternative.

Fisher and Ury explain that perceptions are all that matter when people or groups decide whether to accept an agreement. If a disputant perceives they have a better option, they will often pursue that, even if it is not as good as they think it is.

Duncan illustrates this point clearly with her “burn to be heard” analysis. Adding to the complexity is that everyone wants to participate in decisions that affect them; they do not accept decisions made by others.

As a result, conflict has become a major growth industry.

Universities are society’s stress valves, and the problem that has not been tackled is free education.

In 2015, there were warning signals of what was to come if this problem was not thoroughly tackled. It was, therefore, absolutely predictable what would happen when Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced that there could be a fee increase.

Universities are now temporarily closing or trying to operate amid chaos, with vice-chancellors and senior administrators, several of whom were anti-apartheid student activists, facing escalating anger and violence from some students, operating in crisis management mode, instead of being able to strategise for new-generation, equality-focused universities.

Right now, we all have to act in good faith, and focus on what we all want — quality education — while acknowledging and opening ourselves to the many different realities of all the people in our country.

Harvard University economics professor Amartya Sen’s concept of “capability” holds that governments should be measured against the concrete capabilities of their citizens.

Education is the cornerstone of capability and free higher education for academically deserving students in need should be a right in the pursuit of a more capable, equal and humane society. There is no alternative.

This article originally appeared in Business Day goal is free education

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