Sometimes even I need to break from my free market, private enterprise beliefs to an extent. The #feesmustfall movement has gained high exposure and news interest in the last year. But looking beyond the politics of the situation, I am a firm believer that access to universities should be free for deserving students. Key word is deserving. I’m a big believer in equal opportunity. I’m not a believer in equality. If that sounds pretty harsh and heartless, let me explain. As a society we’re having the wrong conversations about this. Equality aims to allow everybody in society to have the same wealth levels. Equal opportunity aims to allow everybody in society to have the same opportunity levels. There is an infinite difference between the two. Equality disregards abilities, contribution to society and effort, while Equal Opportunity rewards these things, while allowing all to commence careers in the same starting blocks.
Even a steadfast capitalist like me sees the tragedy of a truly talented learner with a major aptitude in a particular field whose parents can’t afford the exorbitant fees that universities ask for. If the learner fails in bursary / NSFAS applications, the only alternative is to then be saddled with excessive student debt for the first years of their career. Or of course just not study at all.
I’m in no way an expert on these things but it seems pretty clear to me that free universities are a real possibility with more frugal, sensible government spending. For a start, not doing things like spending R4 billion on a private jet, over R200 million on a president’s private residence and forcing civil servants and ministers to travel in economy class would be a major start. Then government simply has to get out of what it has no business being involved in anyway. Start with the SABC, The Post Office and SAA. There’s no need for a government controlled broadcaster, airline or mail carrier. The private, free market will provide this better and cheaper. That R4 billion alone could pay for between 80 000 and 120 000 tertiary students for a year.
However, can universities retain their levels of quality? Free access would need to create a philosophy of accepting the best performers from schools due to limited space. With the high demand and free access, universities would need to keep their entry requirements stringent and levels of quality high. But would this happen? The market would need to be clear that the concept of free universities does not result in the granting of automatic access. I also think there needs to be a comprehensive scientific ‘suitability test’ system to ensure university students aren’t enrolling in something that they have little natural propensity for. This would help reduce the high dropout rates. Universities need the muscle to be able to enforce this and insist on suitable career fields for the new students.
Quality issues aside, there are major relevance issues with universities. Universities are becoming increasingly bloated, bureaucratic, archaic institutions out of touch with the modern, real world. It’s costing in excess of R100 000 for 3 years to get the holy grail of the degree. And yet the content of the programme or degree is often so far removed from what is happening in the real world. In many cases, like in my own profession, marketing, the degree’s content is of a nature that teach yourself online for free if you know where to look. Graduates are leaving universities with very little idea of how to function optimally in the workplace and minimal sense of critical thought. Speaking for myself, 95% of what I know about marketing and branding has come from learning-by-doing, while being lucky enough to observe and work with two or three real experts during my first few years of being employed. These are people I’m still enormously grateful for. What I learned at university has been largely irrelevant and added little value to my contributions in the workplace.
So I say let these institutions adapt, skim down or disappear entirely. We don’t need to be sentimental about them. Perhaps one day the sacred university degree will lose its shine and charm as employers and the market alike realise just how obsolete it is.
The reason I say this is because the real opportunity for tertiary education lies in industry-specific initiatives and collaborations. If corporations and industries are getting graduates who are not work-ready and out of tune with real work operations, why not take education into their own hands? This could save millions in unnecessary training and time, and allow the new employees to start adding value immediately. Some industries have done similar, but major opportunities lie in this idea.
Let’s take something like banking. Every year the big banks are some of the big corporates who take their pick of graduates from the top universities. These graduates, for the most part, are picked from generic BComs in fields such as marketing or general management. They have not received any specialised, focused training on how banking works. So despite them being strong academic performers, they still need a whole year in something usually called a Graduate Development Programme, where they learn how to operate in a particular industry and company.
Now imagine a scenario where all the big banks combine to set up a collaborated ‘Banking University’ which teaches students actual real-word knowledge and skills related specifically to banking in South Africa. This Banking University can set up physical delivery ‘campuses’ in main centres, and would easily be able to pull disgruntled academic professionals from universities to partner with banking professionals. The banks set this up in partnership and run the syllabi and activities according to their own terms, based on what they know they want from graduates. So students within this Banking University learn about the banking sector, the economic environment, how banks work, customer service in banking, the money flow within a bank, etc etc. They also get to practise these skills in a fully simulated banking environment. So after 3 years they walk out knowing the absolute ins and outs of banking in South Africa, and could walk into any bank immediately begin adding value. Would your big banks not find this group of graduates a whole lot more appealing? This could create a scenario such as the American Football NFL ‘draft’ system, where the teams contest in taking their pick of the best players leaving college football. In this case each year the big banks would engage in a ‘talent war’ of sorts to snap up their picks.
This same thinking can apply to almost any industry, from banking to retail to financial services to food manufacturing to travel. Let’s call them ‘Industry Universities’. We can still align the curriculum within these to adhere to a reformed unit standard and NQF level, so that graduates still have the assurance of walking away with a Bcom or the like. Or maybe not. If your particular ‘Industry University’ gains enough traction with the market through quality and relevance, the Industry University could disregard government accreditation standards completely and operate on their own set of standards.
So the end result is a range of tertiary institutions created by industry, serving industry, whose graduates can walk straight into employment and commence immediately without in-company training.
A Retail University
A Banking University
A Marketing University
A Public Service University
A Financial Services University
A Tourism University
And so on and so forth.
Eventually what you might start seeing is that learners in schools start identifying industries to work in rather than careers. For example, the learner might decide that he/she really likes retail, and they’re happy to pursue a career in retail only, knowing that this will involve various positions across a spectrum of careers. They know that through a Retail University they’ll graduate and stand a good chance of getting a foot in the door at a big retailer, and they’re happy to start as a packer and work their way up. They’re also comfortable that in retail there will always be employment and growth opportunities, and so they should be.
The only downside to these Industry Universities is that they wouldn’t be free. They couldn’t possibly be. But ultimately you’d create the environment where the school leaver has a choice: A generic theoretical degree for free which probably won’t give direct access to or preference in the job market. Or a practical, focused qualification in a specific industry which involves student fees, but which guarantees better access to jobs and entry level opportunities. It’s worth considering that government could, and perhaps should be getting involved in facilitating these conversations with industry leaders who will in all likelihood be competitors.
The above is of course wishful thinking to an extent. Whether or not these ideas materialise, the ideal scenario for South African education is for a healthy combination of government involvement and freedom of private enterprise to assist as much as possible in tertiary education. Government’s role should be equal opportunity while private education and enterprise’s role should be job creation. Let universities be free. BUT, give the private free market the freedom to provide a viable, relevant alternative.