Equitable and Inclusive Quality Education Opportunities

Recently, I found myself doing quite a few double takes on my Facebook newsfeed. Here I was, scrolling through the clutter of status updates, what’s-her-name’s wedding photos, the practical joke that is the American elections, and other news stories from the many pages I follow, until I realized something was off! I didn’t click on news stories concerning South Africa because I either read it in the paper, or heard it on the radio. It was only when I realized that these stories were published by the Canadian and American news outlets on my feed, that I frantically scrolled back up. So it appears, the civil unrest in South Africa has not gone unnoticed by the rest of the world. The first major story I saw circulating (and heard on my favourite podcast, recorded in Oklahoma) concerned the black female students in Pretoria not being allowed to wear their natural hair out in high school. It made for interesting critiques and dialogues on race, and how apartheid-era tactics were still operating throughout the country. Another story that flooded my twitter feed was South Africa’s withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, to which many nations responded with censure. But the story that has carried the most weight on the international stage is neither of these; instead, it’s a story concerning SDG 4 (ensuring equitable and inclusive quality education, promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all).

I am of course talking about fees must fall, the ongoing struggle between students, public universities and the government of South Africa. Fees must fall started over a year ago as a rallying against proposed national tuition increases in public universities. Recently, the focus has shifted from stopping fee hikes to gaining free, decolonized higher education. There has been much controversy surrounding the fees must fall protests, resulting in the underlying goal of the cause going unnoticed. Since September, the South African media has bombarded the public with images of protesters throwing rocks and bottles, burning down university buildings and vehicles, while police guiltlessly march in impressive formation. The imagery portrayed by the media has given the campaign a bad rep; many receiving the message with much disapproval and contempt. The more the demonstrations intensify, the more the idea of fees must fall championing equitable and inclusive education is disregarded altogether.

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At face value, fees must fall sounds like an unreasonable plea, but looking at the legacy apartheid has left behind for black education in South Africa, reparations in the form of education really don’t seem so bizarre. The more I read about fees must fall; the more I was reminded that SDG 4 concerns both developing and developed countries. Story time: when I attended the University of Toronto some years ago, there were [also] protests underway concerning university fees in Ontario. The opposing campaign was called stop flat fees, combatting an initiative put forth by the University of Toronto (the largest university in Canada), that later influenced 16 of the province’s 20 universities to follow suit. The new proposal applied a fixed tuition fee for enrolment in a minimum number of courses in a particular program or faculty, rather than charging tuition fees for each individual course a student took. For the students who didn’t (or couldn’t) take a full course load, the flat fee introduction was an enormous financial burden. Flat fees also forced students to rush through their studies, even though most learn more effectively at a self-determined pace. By 2010, Ontario students were paying the highest tuition in the country, and for this the stop flat fees campaign gained much momentum.

Student protests culminated and a lawsuit was launched in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, challenging the integrity of the decision making process behind introducing flat fees. The protesting was peaceful, and asked that the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities prohibit the institutional practice of charging flat fees at colleges and universities for any threshold below 100 percent of a full course load and that they input regulations against universities implementing fee structures that side-step provincial tuition (UTSU, 2009). Flat fees were introduced in 2009, and although it took the Ontario government 4 years to respond, they did come up with a solution in 2013. The long anticipated policy requiring universities to charge students on a per-credit basis (for a threshold of an 80% course load or less) rather than charging a flat fee rate (for full time studies) finally came. It took protesting, lobbying, lawsuits, positive media coverage and the combined efforts of the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance and the UofT Students Union to make this happen (Dehaas, 2013).

The situation in Canada involved disputing a new regulation that would stifle many students from having an inclusive, equitable opportunity at education. Stop flat fees was therefore a reactive campaign. In South Africa, the situation has been precarious because it has gone from being reactive (reacting to fee hikes) to being proactive, demanding free public university tuition for all. Some say the protests are random and chaotic, while others say they are highly organized. Some say they are peaceful demonstrations, while others say they are violent and destructive. When comparing both campaigns, it would be easy for me to say that it all worked out in Canada because we went about it the “proper” way… we protested peacefully, we got organized and filed a suit, we had prominent alliances and bla bla bla bla bla. I won’t go on because the “who wore it better” line of thinking does a great injustice to the students who are affected by fees must fall, and the students who are risking their safety to ultimately fight for equitable and inclusive quality education, with lifelong learning opportunities for all South Africans wishing to pursue higher education.

Though many prefer the Canadian model to the South African one, I will say this: One cannot simply compare the way a nation in the Global North goes about resolving an issue to a Nation in the Global South. Present day Canada does not suffer from extreme violence, is not recovering from the legal segregation laws that stripped millions of their basic human rights, and does not have a corrupt, obscure government in office that was recently tried with over 783 charges of corruption (Blair, 2016). Though the University students of South Africa are ultimately fighting for SDG 4 like we have in Ontario, our challenges and solutions are by no means the same. I’ve heard many well-to-do South Africans share their strong opinions on fees must fall, and how they think these students are barbaric and contradicting in their campaigning for free public university. The majority of these opinions came from people who weren’t affected by the Bantu Education Act of 1953, and who were born into the privilege allotted to them by the apartheid regime, therefore being able to afford required school fees of primary and high school education. Coming from a place that would generally agree with their line of thinking… yet living in South Africa and working in a Bantu School, I respectfully disagree with anyone who is of that opinion, or anyone who shames this powerful movement.

Sources

UTSU (2009). “A Case Against Flat Fees”. <www.utsu.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/stop_flat_fees_booklet_final_web.pdf

Blair, David (2016). “Jacob Zume ‘should’ face 783 charges, declares South African Court”. The Telegraph. <www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/04/29/south-african-court-declairs-way-for-jacob-zuma-to-face-783-crimin/

Dehaas, Josh (2013). “’Flat fees’ change and ‘deferral fees’ are done”. Macleans. <www.macleans.ca/education/uniandcollege/ontario-introduces-new-tuition-rules>.

 

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Do girls & women stand a chance?

Hello Friends!

Today, I want to briefly talk to you about my sisters here in South Africa, their vulnerabilities, and what strategies can be used to address their inequity.

-Socio-economic status and Education-

It is no secret that the relationship between education and socio-economic status is circular. Though apartheid has now been abolished for 20+ years, it is plain to see that South Africa is struggling to correct the severe inequalities in education created by decades of socio-economic divide between race groups. Though there is “equal opportunity for all” under the nation’s new constitution, the geographic location of a child’s birthplace largely determines their educational advantage or disadvantage.

This is especially apparent in our drive into Slangspruit Primary School everyday. We pass suburban private schools with olympic sized swimming pools, then we make our way through litter free neighbourhoods with children walking in every direction in their smart uniforms carefully ironed and tucked in, headed to their urban schools with paved playgrounds and projectors in every classroom, until finally… we weave our way through the townships and end up in the muddy earthed, broken windowed, outdated structure that is Slangspruit Primary. Under apartheid, the school a learner attended was determined by race. Today, it is determined by what a family can afford, meaning not much has changed 20+ years after apartheid for the poor of South Africa.

-Who does this affect most?-

This disadvantage is more apparent among girls and women, who are vulnerable members of the Slangspruit community. The women and girls are considered vulnerable because of the high rates of HIV infection, sexual abuse, and domestic violence in the area. In South Africa, one’s socio-economic status [to a large extent] also determines educational outcomes. What Ukulapha (my host organization) does is implement programs and projects that aim to end the intergenerational transmission of “poor” status when it comes to education, beginning with restoring the school’s basic resources and infrastructure. The organization uses Slangspruit Primary School as an instrument of transformation in the community.

-Let’s talk about girls-

When addressing issues like the standard of education in townships and rural communities in SA, it is important to focus on gender equality as a cross cutting issue. Because I work in a school setting, I see education as a sure gateway to achieving gender equality among women and girls in this country, especially since Ukulapha has run workshops and implemented women-specific programs with great success in the past. But Slangspruit is one Township in a country with hundreds of Townships. Slang also has a non-profit (Ukulapha) on site that supports progress efforts through education and community development. Therefore the question arises… How can South Africa address the issues around gender inequality when the most obvious entry point (education) is underfunded to the point where outside organizations need to intervene to accomplish anything?

One of the greatest achievements since democracy in South Africa has been the school enrolment of girls, and since, the South African Government has committed itself to transforming gender relations, achieving gender equality, and promoting women’s empowerment. But it is important to ask what measures will be taken in achieving this goal. Is it enough to have a progressive constitution that guarantees the equality for both males and females? I say it isn’t. Addressing gender equality as a crosscutting goal requires that women’s views, interests and needs shape the education agenda as much as men’s, and that the education agenda supports progress toward more equal relations between women and men. This means that the department of education must recognize that every policy, program and project affects girls and boys differently.

I see education as the greatest entry point to addressing gender equality in South Africa. It is also important to understand that the socio-economic landscape left behind by apartheid has made this entry point quite difficult for poorer schools. From mud structures to the private schools in the suburbs, the promise of equal opportunities in education is insufficient as a huge spectrum of inequalities still exists from the apartheid era. Until the South African government can address the gross inequity in the quality of education between the rich, middle class and the poor, it is up to outside organizations like Ukulapha to facilitate programs that address gender equality and the empowerment of girls and women. So to answer the question proposed in the title of this post, women do stand a chance in having equal opportunities to their male counterparts, but unfortunately, [right now] this depends on the accessibility of projects and programs implemented by outside organizations, not the South African government.

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A prime example of what was discussed above… this photo was taken at the 2016 Generation of Leaders Summit hosted by Ukulapha for the women in the Slangspruit community. The summit focused on the realization of the human rights of girls and women, self love, and developing self-reliance. 

48 Learners to 1 Educator

Hello, friends,

It’s been a few weeks since I last checked in, and I have lots to tell. These first two weeks have flown by so quickly, a foreshadowing of how fast 6 months will zoom by. As I mentioned earlier, thinking about December really does give me anxiety. I just got here and I’m desperate to stay longer than 6 months. What I’ve especially come to love has been my workplace, the delightfully hectic Slangspurit Primary School. The school is situated in between two townships, educating 1050+ learners everyday. If you’re thinking that 1050 is a bizarre number of students for a primary school (what Canadians refer to as elementary school), you’re absolutely right, hence my preluded use of the word hectic.

– SOME CONTEXT –
The number of learners to educators (teachers) has everything to do with the dark history of apartheid. If you are unfamiliar with the term, I won’t do the people it’s affected  an injustice by providing a brief description. Instead, I encourage you to take it to google and find out on your own. Though apartheid came to an end in South Africa in the early nineties, its scars are ever present in the country’s townships. Through the Group Areas Act of 1950, townships were used as a method to segregate Black South Africans to the outskirts of urban areas, essentially relocating large populations to small portions of land. Despite the end of apartheid, townships are still home to most black people in South Africa, including more than half of the black middle class. In a survey conducted in 2007 among 2500 black adults, about 69% said they lived in townships by choice. Though the townships often times lack public utilities, transportation, adequate education and other resources, they thrive on community spirit and warmth that is lacking in the suburbs.

The South African Schools Act came into effect in 1996, establishing a precedent for equal education among children of all races and gender. Though great on paper, the marginalization of townships has not allowed for true equality. One of the greatest challenges apartheid has left behind is township education. The large gap in the student to teacher ratio contributes to a large portion of the educational shortcomings in townships. I see this everyday at work, as the classrooms in Slangspruit Primary School are overcrowded, detracting from student attention and resulting in students falling behind without any acknowledgement from their teachers. The result of overcrowding is a focus on participation rather than comprehension. Because the teachers attempt to engage all the students, there is little one-on-one interaction for those who don’t comprehend specific concepts. This isn’t the entire scope of the problem, but rather a snapshot of the limitations facing township education.

– UKULAPHA’S MISSION –
There is a lack of acknowledgement from the federal government about these obstacles, which is why many schools look to outside programs to supplement township education systems. This is where Ukulapha Community Outreach Project (my host organization) comes in. The many projects Ukulapha has accomplished over the years has improved teaching and learning conditions at Slangspruit. Taking a human rights approach (rather than charity), Ukulapha works with the school in a collaborative, organic relationship that hears the needs of the community. When I first researched on the work Ukulapha does, I was vexed because the recurring thought in my head was the government should be doing this, not an outside organization. Unfortunately, if Slangspruit relied on the government to do one tenth of the work Ukulapha has done, the wait would be interminable.

Now that you have some context toward township education, you can acknowledge just how incredible Ukulapha’s accomplishments over the years have been:

Modular Unit: Ukulapha installed a modular structure on the school grounds, serving as a computer lab for students and office space for Ukulapha onsite staff.
Satellite Library: Ukulapha partnered with the local municipal library of Pietermaritzburg and established a satellite library on school grounds, creating 4 jobs for community members and a LIBRARY. That’s right, before this project, the school didn’t have a library!
Nutritional Lunches: Ukulapha provides a nutrition laden lunch for all 1050 students attending Slang.
School Garden: Ukulapha established a school garden, providing extra nourishment to the school lunches, also employing a community member as a caretaker.
School Uniforms: For students who are most in need, Ukulapha provides uniforms, allowing them to attend school dignified among peers.
Maintenance: Ukulapha has been integral in the maintenance of school grounds. They have secured funding for: ceiling fans in every classroom, painting the school, renovating bathrooms, providing rainwater tanks, fencing the school grounds, etc.
Homework Club: Establishing an after-school homework club, where interns sit one on one with students who aren’t understanding specific concepts due to overcrowding in classrooms.

– MY ROLE –
Meeting Carolyn (the Executive Director), the learners and the educators has been a blast. Everyone is so friendly and supportive, and I’ve finally been able to contextualize my role. Seeing the importance of the partnership between Ukulapha and Slang, I now understand that my role is clear-cut. As a resource mobilization coordinator, I must raise as many funds as I can because there is a necessity. Currently, I’m working on a grant proposal through the South African Department of Justice and Constitutional Development. My deadline is around the corner, and now that I better understand the socio-economic conditions of township schools, I am committed to giving my 110%.

Thanks for sticking around, I know this one was longer than usual.

Until next time!