STANDOFF:  Students from Wits University in Johannesburg demonstrate, as the #FeesMustFall protests resume. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK
STANDOFF: Students from Wits University in Johannesburg demonstrate, as the #FeesMustFall protests resume. Picture: EPA/KIM LUDBROOK

I HAVE never been able to fully support the #FeesMustFall protests. This isn’t because I believe poor students should be denied access to university on the basis of a lack of funding, or even because I disagree with the tactics used by protesting students to get the attention of the government and the media. It is because, to my mind, any debate about universities is inherently elitist.

This is especially true in SA, where to earn a university exemption and the opportunity to even apply to study at a university means that you have enjoyed more privilege in your life than the vast majority of your countrymen and women. This is the case whether you are black or white. If you get into university, you are one of the lucky ones.

That doesn’t delegitimise the struggles faced by those students who have battled to make it to university or deny the historical inequalities that make it easier for white students to qualify for a place, but it does raise questions about where state money is best spent and more complex questions about who is most deserving.

In a country in which half the children who start Grade 1 don’t even make it to matric and only about 15% get so far as to make it to university, it seems mad to even enter a debate over offering free education to these few who have already "made it".

I have always found the South African obsession with university education peculiar, especially among the wealthy. Children at good schools are almost expected to attend university, irrespective of their natural aptitude. This expectation is tied up with the smug belief that children who attend university are somehow more intelligent than those who attend a technical institution, when in reality it had more to do with their upbringing and opportunities.

Similarly, the belief that a university degree is a guaranteed path to success puts unimaginable familial and financial pressure on poor students who qualify for university but may fare just as well, or even better, at a technical institution or running their own businesses.

Nowhere was this fetish with university education more apparent to me than during my time as a student adviser at the University of Cape Town. One of the first questions I would ask when sitting down with a student who was struggling with their degree was, "What do you want to do when you leave university?" Many students would have an idea or passion that would broadly align with the degree they were pursing. But all too often, the response was, "I don’t know".

I don’t think it is reasonable to expect a 19-year-old to know what they are going to do with their life, but I do think it is problematic when students pursue a degree for no other purpose than to get a degree. Some were at university because their parents forced them to attend; others were caught up in a belief that this was the only legitimate option for "successful" young people after school.

The primary skill students learn at university is critical thought — unless they are studying a profession such as medicine, accounting or engineering, in which case they also learn content related to their profession. I don’t want to bash critical thought, but as someone who has graded third-year student essays, I can tell you from first-hand experience that you don’t need to have mastered it to get a university degree. Nor does having a degree guarantee that you will find a job or become a useful — or wealthy — member of society.

Speaking about the same problem in the US, Michael Schrage put it like this in the Harvard Business Review: "There is a mythical belief that higher education invariably leads to higher employment and better jobs. It doesn’t. Education is a misleading to malignant proxy for economic productivity or performance. Knowledge may be power, but ‘knowledge from college’ is neither a predictor or guarantor of success."

It is my feeling that this obsession with tertiary education as a silver bullet to all the country’s woes underpins much of the sentiment behind the university protests. Young South Africans are finding it increasingly difficult to find work, let alone build a career that satisfies them financially or emotionally. Much of this has to do with an acute shortage of basic skills that would make them employable, such as good literacy and numeracy, knowledge of computers, and reliability. As a result they look to a university degree as the solution.

The reality is that the majority of South Africans will never attend university — and nor should they. Most jobs, even well-paid jobs in developed economies, don’t require a university degree to be done properly.

Much of the recent debate over tertiary funding has centred on where the money will come from, but what would happen if we removed that constraint? If money was no object and every South African child had access to quality primary and secondary education, would we really want every child who qualified for university to attend? I would argue no.

A university education can be useful, but as Schrage points out, it isn’t essential to effective entrepreneurship and it does not guarantee success. Other skills — such as how to run a business, build a house or machine an engine — are not taught at university but they are still valuable skills that should be celebrated and desired.

In other words, we should be asking what skills the economy really needs rather than worrying about how much the government is going to contribute to someone’s liberal arts degree. Because when the country produces the skills that the economy needs, everyone becomes richer.

Few people would argue that poor students who qualify for a place at university should be excluded on the basis of their financial circumstances, but this is not what the #FeesMustFall debate is about. The fact that those behind the movement rejected the fee increases approved by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, despite broad financial relief for the poor and for working-and middle-class families, suggests this is not about fairness. As fellow columnist Steven Friedman wrote, "… the demand that no one pay for higher university has become, for many radicals, an article of faith".

What this suggests to me is that those supporting the #FeesMustFall movement have bought into the elitist paradigm that a university degree somehow makes you a better person and are perversely protesting to entrench privilege and inequality.