The politics of politics

By Simon HowellWalking through campus today, after just passing GLT, I looked up and happened to see a red shirt, emblazoned with the words “Education is a Right, Not a Privilege”. My sentiments exactly. But the problem is, that while education may be a right, there is a rather large gap from that promise on a piece of paper, to its fulfilment in the real world. Of course, by its very nature a right has to be fulfilled, but again, this seems to be rarely the case. With elections looming the government has begun to realise this, and not wanting to miss out on votes, has started to “assess” whether the post-apartheid education policy, especially in tertiary education institutes, has been effective.

Following this, there seems to be two strands of thought that have developed. The first is that yes, the education system is slowly getting there, but the right to education is in an important sense still contingent on those that are already in the systems willingness to share. Hence, perhaps, Rhode’s continual and somewhat over rapid expansion project. After all, the more seats there are in a lecture theatre, the more people you can teach, or so the theory goes.

The second strand of thought is that while the effort is being made, there are still major structural problem with South African society as a whole, and these need solving first. A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) and the Council of Higher Education (CHE) found that a rather large percentage of undergraduate students were “dropping out” from several large universities, but importantly, this was not due to their own complacency, but rather due to various socio-economic reasons. As should have been expected, those from the poorest backgrounds had consistently higher drop out rates. What this means, in terms of rights, is that there is really very little point arguing that tertiary education is a right, when it still costs money, and moreover, people still live in desperate poverty.

Henry Schue, a brilliant philosopher at Oxford, once argued that no higher right (such as education) can ever be guaranteed, or safeguarded, without first fulfilling subsistence rights. Simply put, people cannot learn, study, or even work until they are fed, watered, and housed. Education is a right, and an important one, but with it comes a whole set of other rights, most of which are more basic, and should be the government’s first priority. Guaranteeing education, and importantly, guaranteeing the fulfilment of that education, thus means that the government really needs to get its act together, and start pumping some of that excess GDP back into the communities that so desperately need them.While I do not want to put a damper on the O week festivities, I think it is important that we all recognise that while education may be a right, it is also very much a privilege. And for that reasons, we should firstly be grateful that we are here in the first place, and secondly, try to make a difference in those people’s lives for whom education is not yet a right.

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