Category Archives: Quotes

My M&G article on Universities in 2017

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(The above article was published in the Mail & Guardian on the 6th of January 2016 and is available in PDF here).

Students contest the status quo 

Over the last two years, universities in South Africa have become increasingly contested spaces. Student movements like RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall have categorically rejected the status quo as unacceptable and are working to reorder not only the principles that govern universities, but ultimately the principles that govern the country. Of course the first order of business is challenging our current assumptions about who should go to university, what it should look like, and who should pay for it. And on all three fronts they have been phenomenally successful. It is really quite remarkable that a loose group of students who lack a political mandate, who have not been elected by anyone, and have virtually no resources have managed to achieve so much so quickly. They have brought whole universities to their knees and prompted the creation of a Presidential Task Team. Most significantly they garnered enough support to essentially force the government to allocate an additional R17 billion to higher education in the Medium Term Budget.

About 200 years ago, Napoleon Bonaparte famously quipped that a revolution is simply an idea which has found its bayonets. In the context of the various student movements I think it’s worthwhile to try and identify the underlying idea, its animating principle. As the student movements assemble and reassemble under different names (seemingly quite effortlessly), I think there is a leitmotif running through all of them; the unfinished business of 1994. There is a generation of young Black South Africans who feel that the terms of the negotiated settlement were unjust and let White South Africans off the hook. Dr Amos Wilson. a theoretical psychologist and social theorist, makes the logic behind this position explicit in the following quote:

“Justice requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing. The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice. If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded. And the benefits such rewards conferred on the perpetrators of injustice will continue to “draw interest,” to be reinvested, and to be passed on to their children, who will use their inherited advantages to continue to exploit the children of the victims of the injustice of their ancestors. Consequently, injustice and inequality will be maintained across generations as will their deleterious social, economic, and political outcomes.”

Thinking that the various incarnations of the student movements are primarily about universities is a mistake. RhodesMustfall was not about a statue; it was about reclamation and power and history. Similarly, the challenge today is not only about who should pay fees, but who should own the land. The discontent and anger about the ‘pay-to-play’ market system that we have – where only those who can pay for quality get it – is as much about private hospitals and Model-C schools as it is about universities. The true contested space at our universities at the moment is really about the principles that currently order our society and reimagining different ones.

Fighting for a different future

There are students in South Africa today who look at our country and refuse to accept that the way we are currently doing things is the only way they can be done. How is it that in a country with considerable wealth and resources that we still have 10 million people living on less than R10 a day? Whenever I land at Cape Town International Airport and get an aerial view of Khayelitsha, I think to myself “How the heck can we, as a country, not find a dignified solution to housing for the poor?” In Cape Town we have 400,000 people living in shacks a mere 40-minute drive from the house that sold for R290-million in Bantry Bay. We have decadent opulence living next to extreme poverty. It’s not right.

And so we come back to the contested space at universities where people have different ideas about how we get from where we are to a better future. Students associated with Black-First-Land-First argue for land expropriation without compensation. The Nobel Laureate Thomas Piketty motivates for much steeper wealth and inheritance taxes to level the playing field. The Wits SRC has proposed a once-off ‘apartheid windfall’ tax on “companies that benefited unfairly by abusing state resources” under apartheid.

But since the current discussions at universities are still centred on fees and access to university, let’s start there and think about what 2017 might hold for universities, and put some numbers on the table. Personally I think we will actually find a sustainable solution to student financing at universities, possibly even in 2017. Sizwe Nxasana – the head of the Presidential Task Team – has developed a highly sophisticated and workable model of student funding called the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) that is being trialled at seven universities this year, focussing on students studying medicine, engineering and accounting. This is essentially a public-private partnership which aims to “significantly increase the funding and resources which are made available to support students from working class families to graduate and find employment by leveraging private sector funding.” One can think of it as a three-tier model with the poorest students being fully funded with grants and the missing-middle with a combination of grants and income-contingent loans (to be repaid only if the recipient does graduate and earns above a certain amount). Then finally, those at the top that can pay fees do pay fees. While it isn’t free education for everyone – and the vanguard may therefore not accept it – if implemented properly it has a good shot at ensuring that no student is excluded from university on financial grounds. That would be a significant achievement.

Thankfully, many in the sector are now realising that needs-blind allocations to higher education – where all students are equally subsidised – are socially regressive and anti-poor. This is largely because the children of the wealthy attend fee-charging schools that give them a much better shot at qualifying for university than the children of the poor. We know that less than 1 in 10 children from the poorest 70% of households qualify to go to university compared to 1 in 2 or 3 children (40%) among the wealthiest 10% of households. And because of this, if one allocated an additional R10bn to higher-education in a blanket fashion, then about R6,8bn (68%) will end up benefitting the wealthiest 20% of South African households because it is their children who are disproportionately at university (according to two fiscal incidence studies). A recent study showed that 60% of students that qualified for university came from the 30% of high schools that charged fees. What is the point of raising revenue by additional taxes on the richest 20% only to give two thirds of that money straight back to them in the form of indirect subsidies to their children?

So if we agree that the rich should not be subsidised (usually defined as those in households with annual income of more than R600,000), how many students would need funding? Professor Servaas van der Berg’s analysis of household surveys has shown that about 60% of the current university-going population would be eligible for funding. (This assumes that income is under-captured in surveys by about 30% . Importantly, this would cover 73% of Black African university students and 30% of White university students.

While ending financial exclusion at university won’t solve the thornier issues in South Africa – about land, inequality, restitution, primary education, unemployment – it would serve as a powerful and invigorating example that things really can be different to what they are now. It would be poetic if the start of a successful campaign for a different South Africa could trace its origins to the toppling of a statue of Cecil John Rhodes.

Dr Nic Spaull is an education researcher at the Research on Socioeconomic Policy (RESEP) group at Stellenbosch University. He is on Twitter @NicSpaull

 

On UFS brutality: No peace without justice

justice

“Justice requires not only the ceasing and desisting of injustice but also requires either punishment or reparation for injuries and damages inflicted for prior wrongdoing. The essence of justice is the redistribution of gains earned through the perpetration of injustice. If restitution is not made and reparations not instituted to compensate for prior injustices, those injustices are in effect rewarded. And the benefits such rewards conferred on the perpetrators of injustice will continue to “draw interest,” to be reinvested, and to be passed on to their children, who will use their inherited advantages to continue to exploit the children of the victims of the injustices of their ancestors. Consequently, injustice and inequality will be maintained across the generations as will their deleterious social, economic, and political outcomes.”

― Amos Wilson

Watching the racial dynamic cluster-fuck that is unfolding at our former White-only universities in South Africa feels like a kind of national de-ja-vu; the revisitation of the ghosts of apartheid. White brutes beating Black protesters in an attempt to protect their privileged way of life even as the legitimate demands of the working class become un-ignorable.

Land, fees, language, inequality…IMHO all of these boil down to a lack of adequate reparation and restitution at 1994. Too much fake kumbaya, too little real redistribution. As an artificial group ‘selected’ and ‘glorified’ by apartheid, White people did not offer up an unqualified admission of guilt and of unlawful enrichment as apartheid ended. Forgiveness was offered before it was asked for. Looking back over the last few years, or looking ahead at the elections to come, the topic may change but the tune is the same – people that have been consistently fucked over by colonialism, apartheid and now a self-enriching elite are eventually saying “Enough is enough, we also want a dignified existence.”

I cannot see how there can be true forgiveness and reconciliation without justice and reparations. There can be no sustainable peace and shared prosperity without justice.

 

Pistorius vs Marikana – Zapiro on justice?

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(From here)

I’m reminded of the article “The Law’s Majestic Equality” which opens with a quote from Anatole France: “The majestic equality of the laws prohibits the rich and the poor alike from sleeping under bridges, begging in the streets and stealing bread

The amazing Susan Sontag on photography…

train mountain

As photographs give people imaginary possession of a past that is unreal, they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure … Photographs will offer indisputable evidence that the trip was made, that the program was carried out, that the fun was had. Photographs document sequences of consumption carried on outside the view of families, friends, neighbours. But dependence on the camera, as the device that makes real what one is experiencing doesn’t fade when people travel more. Taking photographs fills the same need for the cosmopolitans accumulating photo-trophies of their boat trip up the Albert Nile or their fourteen days in China as it does for the lower-middle-class vacationers taking snapshots of the Eiffel Tower or Niagara Falls. A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is also a way of refusing it – by limiting experience to a search for the photogenic, by converting experience into an image, a souvenir. Travel becomes a strategy for accumulating photographs. The very activity of taking pictures is soothing, and assuages general feelings of disorientation that are likely to be exacerbated by travel. Most tourists feel compelled to put the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable that they encounter. Unsure of other responses, they take a picture. This gives shape to experience: stop, take a photograph, and move on. The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic – Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and supposed to be having fun. They have something to do that is like a friendly imitation of work: they can take pictures” (Susan Sontag On Photography p10).

I really love this piece of cultural observation from Susan Sontag (published over 36 years ago). More than a few friends of mine have remarked how liberating it felt when they forced themselves to put their camera away for a few days while travelling. After getting over the initial fomo they recalled a far more tangible sense of being present and living the experience now rather than living it to recall later. In reading her thoughts I find myself smiling guiltily as she easily enumerates my unknown motivations for taking photographs. Whether it be ‘certifying experience’ and providing indisputable evidence that ‘fun was had’, or as a way to placate my own insecurities of being unproductive on holiday – I have been exorcised of my naïve view that photographs are just a means to remember events. Reading things like this helps me to realize that it is easier to focus on doing rather than being, but that being is more important. Doing usually produces something tangible – evidence or proof, something to show for it – what does being produce? Perhaps a life without regrets?

*For an excerpt of the book see here (PDF).

Meaning, inequality, sociology and English majors…

happen

  • Such a sweet cartoon about the meaning of questions and questioning meaning 
  • Really useful World Bank tool developed by Deon Filmer. It allows you to easily get graphs and tables on educational attainment and completion for a variety of countries.
  • SACMEQ III (2007) country reports have finally been finalized and are now available for download on the SACMEQ website
  • Angus Deaton writing in the Lancet weighs in on the fight between Sen and Bhagwati by comparing their two new books. Short article and worth the read.
  • The Rise and Consequences of Inequality in the US” – Krueger’s 2012 address to the Council of Economic Advisers. Worth a read. In case you were wondering how unequal South Africa’s income is distributed, the richest 10% of South Africans earn 58% of total income, the poorest 50% earn 8% of total income, and the poorest 10% earn 0.5% of total income (from this 2012 World Bank report on inequality of opportunity in SA).
  • The latest edition of the British Journal of the Sociology of Education is on “Education and Social Mobility” – some interesting stuff in there. I’m glad the sociologists are seeing the light as far as empirical research is concerned. One quote from the intro by Brown, Reay & Vincent: “The mass of research on student identities, aspirations and experiences of school, college and university has been overlooked, partly because it is primarily based on qualitative rather than quantitative methods of data collection. While this points to a weakness in mainstream mobility studies it also points to a failure of the sociology of education to engage in broader debates around intergenerational mobility, notwithstanding its engagement with wider debates on social inequalities and social justice. It also raises questions as to whether the next generation of education researchers will have the training in quantitative methods and techniques to engage in future mobility studies” (p.638).
  • A. H. Halsey has similar sentiments when he says that “Conflicts between advocates of quantitative and qualitative methods still rage in sociology. I can claim to be among the pioneer supporters of quantitative methods but also to have been friendly towards qualitative work. Nevertheless, the neglect of statistical training still seems to me to be a barrier, not only to sociological understanding but also to the supply of competent teachers of the subject
  • Quote of the week by Adam Gopnik “So: Why should English majors exist? Well, there really are no whys to such things, anymore than there are to why we wear clothes or paint good pictures or live in more than hovels and huts or send flowers to our beloved on their birthday. No sane person proposes or has ever proposed an entirely utilitarian, production-oriented view of human purpose. We cannot merely produce goods and services as efficiently as we can, sell them to each other as cheaply as possible, and die. Some idea of symbolic purpose, of pleasure-seeking rather than rent seeking, of Doing Something Else, is essential to human existence. That’s why we pass out tax breaks to churches, zoning remissions to parks, subsidize new ballparks and point to the density of theatres and galleries as signs of urban life, to be encouraged if at all possible. When a man makes a few billion dollars, he still starts looking around for a museum to build a gallery for or a newspaper to buy. No civilization we think worth studying, or whose relics we think worth visiting, existed without what amounts to an English department—texts that mattered, people who argued about them as if they mattered, and a sense of shame among the wealthy if they couldn’t talk about them, at least a little, too. It’s what we call civilization.” From the New Yorker article “Why teach English?

 

M&G 200 Young South Africans :)

  • I recently got selected as one of the M&G’s 200 Young South Africans for 2013 (*happy dance*). You can find the write-up (of which I am very fond!) here. The picture above (from the M&G site) was taken in Kalk Bay and has absolutely nothing to do with education or research…moving swiftly along….
  • Cool blog: FarnamStreetBlog (via ClintClark) – Similar to BrainPickings (which you MUST follow if you don’t already).
  • The best websites in the world – information overload (not for those of the FOMO persuasion).
  • The Bishop of Salisbury weighs in on the legalization of same-sex marriage in the UK. Sensible.
  • US views on same-sex marriage summarized in four neat graphs – basically the issue is generational and religious (no shit Sherlock).
  • Long but interesting (and informed) Politicsweb article about education in South Africa. Sean Muller (UCT) needs to be brought into the education fold me thinks…
  • Some awesome quotes (via GMVP, who refuses to have an online presence – whatevs): “There is no reason to be absolutist about either aggregated data or novelistic narrative as research methods. The tension between qualitative and quantitative methods reflects the contradiction between the impersonal and personal faces of democracy, the moral need to both respect and transcend our finitude.” (213 – 214)
  • “Stories compress characters and events, and statistics reveal patterns we would have missed otherwise. Their key difference lies at another level: in the approach to death. Stories teach us to mourn, and statistics teach us to see impersonal order. (…) Stories teach the ethic of caring, statistics the ethic of not caring. Statistical thinking is a methodological Buddhism.” (214)
  • Quote of the week by JFK: “Our gross national product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials… it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.” (can I get an Amen!?)

Weekend reading…

Are you letting the fear of being wrong rob you of being confidence?

  • SA’s Child Gauge 2012 – Suffer the Little Children (Daily Maverick article) – the lived experience of too many South African children is simply unacceptable. But life goes on.
  • Servaas van der Berg (my supervisor) takes on Adcorp “Adcorp’s employment and unemployment figures are not taken seriously by researchers – yet they can do much harm” and see Loane Sharp’s reply here (and Wittenberg and Kerr repeat the most important reasons why we shouldn’t take Adcorp’s figures seriously – see here)
  • Trevor Manuel and Lindiwe Sisulu crack down (at least on paper) on incompetent and corrupt bureaucrats.
  • When Churches act like businesses they shouldn’t be surprised when they get consumers (see here).
  • The ABSOLUTELY shocking state of infrastructure in Limpopo schools – pictures tell a thousand words
  • Interesting newsletter from “Governing Body Foundation” discussing ANA results and some advice for schools (citing our interview with M&G)
  • Bill Easterly brilliant as usual – discussing “The Ideology of Development” from which I draw the quote of the day:
    • The ideology of Development is not only about having experts design your free market for you; it is about having the experts design a comprehensive, technical plan to solve all the problems of the poor. These experts see poverty as a purely technological problem, to be solved by engineering and the natural sciences, ignoring messy social sciences such as economics, politics, and sociology”