Johannesburg – The higher education sector was not helping reduce inequality and poverty because it was not feeding enough competitive graduates into the economy, University of the Witwatersrand Vice Chancellor Adam Habib said on Tuesday.
"Your higher education is meant to assist you in inequality, it doesn’t produce enough graduates, which means they command high salaries, which means they accelerate inequality," he said during a discussion on the Fees Must Fall movement in Johannesburg.
"The second thing is, by subsidies falling and fees going up, access to the university is limited for poor people, and if it’s limited for poor people you accelerate the very inequalities of your society. So higher education is not doing what it is meant to do."
He said #FeesMustFall was a legitimate movement with legitimate demands.
Revolt of the middle classes
Higher education was facing two major problems: a low graduate output and declining subsidies from government.
While the number of students in higher education had doubled from 420 000 in 1994 to just over a million in 2015, the per capita subsidy had been declining for the past 15 years.
In 1994, 70% of Wits’ budget was derived from a government subsidy. Last year, it had dropped to less than 30%. This had led to working class and middle class students being excluded as universities compensated with double-digit fee increases.
"And so what you saw in Fees Must Fall is not the revolt of the working classes. It’s actually the revolt of the middle classes that have said this is just unacceptable, and this is why there was so much widespread sympathy for the protest," said Habib.
Shocking waste of human talent
The low number of university graduates was due to a number of factors, including the steep dropout rate of pupils in the education system from Grade 1, Habib said. Only half of the roughly 1.1 million children who entered the schooling system in Grade 1 in any particular year finished school.
Only about 200 000 of about 600 000 pupils who wrote their National Senior Certificate exams obtained a bachelor’s pass enabling them to enter university.
Just over half of those 200 000 did not complete their degrees. This left about 100 000 students in the university system. And only 20% of those finished their degrees in the stipulated time, Habib said.
"So, starting from your Grade 1 cohort to the ones who finish their first degree on time, you’ve got less than 30 000 out of 1.1 million students. It’s a shocking waste of human talent."