Matthew Lester: #FeesMustFall – Academic week lost, unknown consequences.

Matthew Lester takes a look at the ‘potential unknown’ consequences of the students protest action. He takes his hat off to them for what they’ve achieved and says its extraordinary that everything has remained relatively peaceful. He’s been dreading the news of someone being killed in the aftermath. Lester says unfortunately though the reality is that ‘it’s another academic week lost’ and it’s during exam time. The consequences of which could be far-reaching but are really unknown. It’s another witty, yet to the point piece, from the Rhodes University tax professor, well worth a read. – Stuart Lowman

By Matthew Lester*

All week I have been anticipating and dreading a tweet or an image that a student has been killed in the fees protests. How it hasn’t happened is extraordinary. And we are still inches away from a Hector Pieterson image that could set off carnage throughout RSA.

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


But wouldn’t it be a cleverer strategy for the students to call a temporary halt? At least for now?

The students know that with exam season now here they hold the trump card. The logistics of exam season is a nightmare at the best of times. But delay another week and the knock-on implications are fantastic.

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

And then come the unknown issues.

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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 good mind has always been difficult to retain at a university. This is aggravated further by B-BBEE where a good mind is worth a fortune, everywhere, except in academia.

But to be taken seriously in academia today you must not only have rafts of degrees and published papers, international experience is also a pre-requisite. 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.

Read also: Matthew Lester: Parliament chaos reigns, #FeesMustFall now on agenda

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 codacils 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.

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