South African Higher Education in Crisis

Monday, May 7, 2018

From the chapter on South Africa by Eve Gray and Laura Czerniewicz:

It is clear that the conundrum of providing learning materials in South African universities extends far beyond the materials themselves and beyond supply chains, to the complex ecologies of access in general shaped by apartheid separatism and present-day policy disconnects. Student access to resources has been the victim of vacillation between a policy tradition grounded in the “alternative curriculum” principles of anti-apartheid publishing and a developmental approach, and one grounded in a neoliberal market-oriented view of the role of higher education. Despite repeated efforts to build a national education agenda around the former, persistent economic difficulty has been a more fertile climate for imposing and rationalizing the latter view, helping provoke the current protests.

One result of the neoliberal approach is the expectation that universities should be, to an extent, self-funding, with student fees as an important part of this mix. This has been a particularly unrealistic expectation in South Africa as the system expands to serve the disproportionately poor and often underprepared majority population. Expansion of the NSFAS—the national student bursary and loan scheme—has been the primary policy response, but an inadequate one given the scale of student needs.

These problems are exacerbated by the variety of market failures in the book publishing and retailing sectors, including unaffordably high prices and chronic mismatches of supply and student demand, particularly in regard to international textbooks. In this context, many students ration their limited financial resources, making judgments about which books are most important for their studies and doing without the others. They employ a combination of strategies for accessing resources that extends well beyond the commercial market, including the sharing of resources within and across cohorts, photocopying, and relying on downloading—generally with little regard to legality.

These arrangements also reflect the segmented nature of the international market, which is structured by parallel importation prohibitions in copyright law. These prohibitions allowed originating publishers to provide discretionary, cheaper editions for developing countries, while preserving the higher-cost U.S. and UK markets, but they also significantly limited the bargaining power of small-market countries. The Kirtsaeng v. Wiley case in the United States in 2013 has begun to unravel these arrangements, leading to market instability and higher prices on imported books as new pricing models are put in place.

The complexities of the system have been deeply shaken by the issues raised during the student protests. The questions being raised refer very directly to the question of student learning resources and their appropriateness to the African context in which their users live. While the university presses have produced readers and republication of the works of African thinkers, the bigger questions of the reform of the university systems and the curriculum remain in abeyance. There is a very real risk of a general failure of the higher education system as a whole, in the face of underfunding and misalignment of policy directions with student aspirations.

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