The danger of invented spaces

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I don’t like to be the bearer of bad news but what the #FeestNustFall movement has accomplished was not a victory, neither for students or the country.

These are my personal endearments and lamentations. I disassociate my thoughts here, from any organisation I may normally formally represent. In this brief composition, I offer four points that demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that the recent protests at NUST as well as the resolution that came after are no cause for celebration.

The strike was largely predicated on unintelligent demands. The students who participated, the SRC and NANSO, betrayed equality when they advocated for the equal treatment of students who are essentially unequal. Contrary to what the public was led to believe, students are not a homogenous group; they are not all from poor families who can’t afford higher education. The sentiment that fees are exorbitant was therefore misleading. Exorbitant for whom, when a fraction of students come from well-to-do families, duly demonstrated by the cars they drive and the lives they lead. Others, both at undergraduate and especially postgraduate level have good paying jobs that can fund their education. Additionally, at least a quarter of students have NSFAF ‘loans’.

It is therefore idiosyncratic for students to demand that all debts be written off, and that all students ought not to pay relieving deposits. The institutions will suffer, and so will the students who will have to foot higher installments throughout the year. The intelligent demand would have been to propagate for the reduction of fees for students who can prove, with evidence, that they can otherwise not afford to pay. In such a case, even I would agree that government has a responsibility, nay, a duty, to write off some student debt, and subsidise some deposits, but not for all students. Last week Thursday’s resolve steals money from struggling families, and funds the children of fat cats.

Invented spaces are not the best place for making decisions. I can only imagine the level of cool-headed rational thinking that took place between NUST, SRC and NANSO, while striking voices echoed in the distance. For this, I blame not the students, but the leaders who abrogate requests to engage with students when there is no threat or presence of disorder. They must understand that higher education is not a commodity and students are not customers – they are the building blocks of Namibia’s future. As such, they must be treated with due respect and accorded avenues to engage the managers of higher education institutions. Failure to do so creates forced dialogue in invented spaces such as the NUST gate. These invented spaces are counterproductive because the masses hardly assemble to rationally engage. Attempts to reason are normally ignored as louder voices dominate – the outcome is seldom desirable.

Strikes set a wrong precedent. We can only guess what appetite to strike the NUST episode has left in the mouths of students. Who now feel that they have the power – they have managed to lock the gates and solve their problems. This idea that we can solve problems by being unruly sets a dangerous culture, with the potential to undermine what little we have been able to build since independence. A victory at the gate doesn’t change the fact that the country is in a financial situation. A closer look at the document brandished to the public will reveal that there is no commitment from government there. NUST, SRC and NANSO do not constitute a resolution from the state. The celebration was premature.

Namibian students have always committed to their studies, in part, due to vicarious responsibility. This, plainly put, means that students work hard because someone they care about is making a sacrifice. It is therefore their duty to do well on behalf of their dear parent or sponsor. How do we socially enforce commitment or dedication from students to their studies when they know it is not their mommy, aunty, uncle or themselves paying? Paying some fees, as we do now is a big part of all citizens’ personal responsibility to the growth of this country. The cost of higher education is a shared responsibility. Considering that the state largely funds higher education and in turn, that students commit to study and also pay money is evidence that higher education is a shared responsibility. And for it to work well, it should remain as such. If government is coerced into paying all fees, as NANSO advocates, what is likely to happen is a drop in personal responsibility. The world over, corruption and a laissez-faire attitude is highest in state owned entities, because there is seldom any personal responsibility attached with the loss of government money. I fear that this phenomenon will seep into higher education should NANSO prevail to subtract all personal responsibility from students.

The supposition that tertiary institutions milk students, and that they somewhat find pleasure in overcharging is baseless. The long and short of it is that public universities charge fees based on a number of things, chief among them their projected funding from government, which is the largest source of income. So what is required from students is the commitment that government cannot afford. In the same vein, it is untrue that universities waste money by paying huge salaries to staff. University workers, like all private employees need to be paid competitively; otherwise they pursue greener pastures and abandon academia. Strikes induce an already very limited number of lecturers to move into other sectors.

Unfortunately, when we gather at invented spaces, sound agreements are hardly an outcome. What we get are empty promises and at best dangerous compromises. In the following days, I anticipate that decision makers will meet with reason, and adjust some of their earlier commitments. Should this happen, I appeal to parents and students to consider my thoughts above and make informed choices. In the words of Eugen Ionesco, ideology separates us, dreams and anguish bring us together.

• John Haufiku is a former debater and current part-time high school debating coach, with academic qualifications in information, communication and industrial psychology.

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