Wednesday, August 20, 2008

What is wrong with these students?

As a graduate of Wits University and a former member of the University Council, representing graduate students, I take university governance issues and students politics seriously.

With all the pressures that are on South African universities, it is no surprise that expediency, incompetence, lack of will and dedication, and maladministration take its toll. Students are at the bottom of the value chain within the university, and they always pay the price for these problems.

Inadequate resources, unfair treatment by people in authority, and disrespect are just some of the negative experiences that student life entails. Add to that the problems of financing, the lack of academic support, and the low rate of success and the high drop-out rate in universities can be explained. Hence, student representatives take these issues most seriously: they affect the students' life and decide over their success or failure.

In his inauguration as the new Vice-Chancellor at the University of Cape Town, Max Price bemoaned that students are not concerned with other issues. He said:

“It upsets me that we don’t see students protesting about corruption in government, or about attacks on the constitution, or about the way SA treated Zimbabwe.”

Yes, of course, student leaders should make their voices heard about important political and social issues, of local and global reach. But with so many things going wrong for students within their universities and with the very basics of tertiary education not guaranteed, how can Price expect them to focus beyond the university, before they are properly supported to succeed?

The more sinister interpretation of this statement is that he does not want students to be involved in the running of the university and make a contribution towards improving it. My experience with university administrations is that they only want student input in governance when it suits them, but when they point the finger at failures, mistakes and problems, they are dismissed as rabble-rousers and thoughtless imatures who need to be told better. Indeed, a long way to go for South African universities to change the mind-set, away from 'mother-knows-best' to consultation and inclusiveness.

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