Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation

(A shorter version of this post was published by Times Higher Education on 29 October 2015)

University campuses across South Africa have been simmering through much of this academic year. Over the past few weeks, discontent has crystallised into a nationwide protest against proposed tuition fee increases, leading to unprecedented campus closures and the disruption of exams. While the government has made major concessions for 2016, the real challenge is for 2017 and beyond.

While the cost of higher education is a real and pressing issue, South Africa’s universities are also a barometer of widespread discontent with the pace and direction of change twenty years after the end of apartheid. With 50 per cent of the country’s population under the age of 25 and both inequality and unemployment rising, wider fractures are beginning to show.

ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe has accused students who have drawn the comparison with the Arab Spring of being “pseudo-revolutionaries”. Given the state repression that has followed the uprising across a swathe of Arab states in 2011, vice-chancellors will take little comfort in this analogy either. But the cost of education, rising inequality and widespread unemployment are bound up with disillusionment with both the state and the gatekeepers of knowledge and opportunity. Fees and payment requirements are a spark to a bone-dry forest of far greater complexity.

University fees in South Africa are unregulated and have increased steadily in recent years. The current protests were triggered by some universities announcing increases of more than 10 per cent: close to twice the rate of inflation. Many students can barely afford food and housing at present fee levels, and further fee increases will make it impossible for them to continue in higher education. They have little prospect of employment as an alternative to study.

Students have been eloquent in making their case, as in this video, made at the height of last week’s protests, and titled “Shutting Down the Rainbow Nation”:

Students who barely get by on campus often experience difficult conditions at home. There have been mounting protests against failures in the delivery of service such as water, sanitation and health, in South Africa’s townships despite significant state investment over the past two decades. The prognosis for next year’s municipal elections has rattled the ruling African National Congress. As new and populist opposition to the ANC’s hegemony, the EFF has joined up discontent over continuing inequalities to campus politics, and a broad coalition of activists are advocating rapid and fundamental change.

Protests began in February, at the beginning of the academic year, when the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) announced it had insufficient funds to support all qualifying students. Student leaders at Tshwane University of Technology estimated that this, combined with the inability of students to pay off existing debt, would result in more than 20,000 students being excluded from further study. Confrontations with security guards and police led to campuses being closed and disruptions that have continued for most of the year.

In March, a protest that linked the inadequacies of basic facilities in the townships to the continuing legacy of colonialism brought together a broad coalition of black staff, students and low-paid service workers at the University of Cape Town. In August, a documentary revealing the continuing racism at the University of Stellenbosch went viral. The most recent protests, leading up to a national day of action on 21 October, were sparked by the University of the Witwatersrand’s announcement of a 10.5 per cent fee increase, and by similar levels of increase at other universities. Blade Nzimande, South Africa’s minister of higher education and training, initially dismissed talk of a crisis; by the end of the week it was apparent to everyone that these are the most widespread student protests in South Africa since the apartheid years.

The real costs to students of university study are often opaque and difficult to compare, with some institutions adding charges for services that their competitors include. Immediate issues may not be the overall cost of study so much as the scheduling of payments, with some universities requiring large upfront contributions. Others have put in place their own systems of economic redistribution, openly admitting to charging high fees to raise money they can then allocate to low-income students as bursaries. But financial need is notoriously difficult to estimate and there is little transparency in the processes followed.

Funding for the loans scheme has improved over the past decade, with a twenty-fold increase since 1997. But the upper eligibility threshold is low and many working families, who have found it close to impossible to pay university fees at current levels, earn too much to qualify (significantly, families have joined students in protesting against next year’s fee hikes at some universities).

The NSFAS is also chronically inefficient. South African universities have very high levels of student non-completion and growing unemployment makes loan recovery difficult; NSFAS reports 36 per cent decline in recoveries this year, compared to 2014/15. Given this, and the pressure on the Treasury to fund basic education, housing, health and municipal services, it is unlikely the state will pump more money into the student loan system.

In an initial attempt to head off further protests, vice-chancellors accepted Minister Nzimande’s proposal for a voluntary cap on tuition fee increases next year of 6 per cent: the anticipated rate of general inflation. Students rejected the initiative, campaigning instead for no increase and for free education, but it has opened up the possibility of the statutory regulation of fee levels: a measure the government is known to have been contemplating. Given the very wide range of quality and demand for places across South Africa’s higher education system, determining fees at specific universities will not be easy.

The situation was further exacerbated by police responses to protesting students, seen by many as excessive. Some universities went to the courts for interdicts against protesting students, allowing them to bring police on to campuses. This has backfired badly, enraging staff and widening support for the student cause. University Councils and Vice-Chancellors have had to backtrack, and go back to the courts to get their interdicts lifted.

The immediate outcome of last week’s day of action is a short-term compromise. On Friday, President Zuma abandoned his 6% proposal and  announced that there would be no fee increases in 2016. Although state subsidies to universities have increased by 7.7 per cent over the last three years, vice-chancellors had been looking to the minister for more, and will now look for additional compensation to cover the loss of revenue that will follow from freezing fee levels. In response, government emphasises the autonomy of universities and their obligations to contain costs. In the meanwhile, few of the issues raised by students have been addressed. Despite President Zuma’s announcements, some universities remained closed through the following week.

The call for no fee increases – and for free education – is good politics but poor economics. In a country with extreme inequality, freezing fees is similar to a regressive tax. Those celebrating President Zuma’s announcement of the 2016 fee moratorium will not only be low income families; middle and high income families, who can well afford to pay more, will also benefit. Further, unless there are structural changes, the problem will reoccur in 2017 and beyond.

A strong case is likely to be made for fixing NSFAS. This will require three key elements: adequate funding for present commitments; raising the eligibility threshold by a considerable amount to bring in a wider range of potential students; and improving the recovery of loans after students have finished at university and are in employment.

It is, though, difficult to see a fair and viable national student loan system without government regulation of student fees. This is because, without such regulation, escalating fee levels become a burden on the public finances via the loan system, and therefore a backdoor form of university subsidy.

South Africa already has the thinnest of buffers between universities and the state; consequently, fee regulation will be a significant diminution of university autonomy. Over the past week, Vice-Chancellors have been quick to lay responsibility on government, and to call for strong intervention to end the crisis. This may well come back, and bite.

De-identification, but at what price for those outside the charmed circle?

I came across the neologism of “de-identification” last week, when I was completing a project on basic education. The project – Data Driven Districts – is sponsored by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation and is working with the Department of Basic Education in South Africa to see how reliable information about learner attainment across the school system can be used to improve chronically poor performance in key areas such as languages and mathematics.

Freedom of access to information is a key principle of South Africa’s 1996 Constitution and runs through all subsequent legislation and policies. But the measures for the protection of privacy that were included in legislation passed fifteen or so years ago have been overtaken by the digital revolution. In common with many other countries, South Africa has now introduced enhanced controls of privacy; the Protection of Personal Information Act of 2013, commonly known as PoPI.

And this is where de-identification becomes important. It is defined as the removal from a record of any field that can connect information to a specific and nameable individual, as well as any information that it is reasonable to think could allow personal identifiers to be retrofitted to a record. Where information has not been de-identified, stringent conditions apply, including a prohibition on processing records without the clear consent of the record’s owner. Where records have been de-identified, PoPI does not apply.

In terms of legislation and regulation of similar type, PoPI contains a strong and reasonable set of requirements. There’s been a lot of fuss and denigration, but this is not surprising given the strength and reach of the commercial interests that want to turn a profit by selling on what they know about us. And, in many cases, they know far far more about us than we imagine possible. We are photographed and tagged many times a day. Our cell phones know where we sleep. Every electronic transaction leaves a digital footprint.

But we also live in one of two worlds.

PoPI protects those of us who have money to buy, or something to steal. Personal information is used to market – relentlessly – goods and services. Cybercrime is focused on purloining virtual assets, including our identities. This is the charmed circle of the virtual world, where the smart phone is a prosthetic and a signifier of identity.

Beyond this charmed circle, the protection of privacy is also important. For many with low incomes and limited assets, the cell phone is the vital bridge to key services, with still-to-be-realized potential for accessible services that will improve the quality of life. But here, de-identification may come with a cost, getting in the way of using digital technologies in new approaches to development and access to key resources.

One of the limitations on the effective provision of essential services and opportunities to low-income communities – and particularly to those who are widely dispersed and away from cities – has been high transaction costs. Digital technologies can reduce these costs, sometimes dramatically. This was apparent in early studies; a good example is the reduction of the supply chain between small-scale farmers and their markets, resulting in improved margins for investment in rural villages.

The same applies today, and includes significant opportunities for providing key information and access to essential services. But the processes and requirements of de-identification may re-impose transaction costs. For those outside the charmed circle, the notional benefits of online privacy may well offset the potential gains from others knowing who you are, and what you need.

Here’s an example. The case for the Basic Income Grant has been widely made, and well-documented projects have shown its viability in mitigating economic marginalization by allowing recipients to invest in the resources essential to overcome poverty traps. In Brazil, the best-known case, receipt of the grant was linked to enrolling children in basic education. In Namibia, trials showed that receipt of a grant could stimulate small-scale and effective farming enterprises. In all cases the high transactional costs of conventional administrative system either make such programmes very expensive to run, or not possible to run at all. And in such projects, efficient access to personal information is a key to success.

So yes – this neologism signals important considerations to counter the abuses of the zitabytes of personal information that can live on forever in the Internet. But these considerations do not necessarily signify that being made anonymous is in a person’s best interests.

Kayamandi and Paul Roos: one world, two towns

Voyokazi Dyani wants her son to go to Paul Roos Gymnasium, a publicly funded secondary school close to where she lives in Stellenbosch. Her son is above average academically and is passionate about sport, particularly rugby; the school is named for the captain of the first South African rugby team to tour overseas, back in 1906.

But Paul Roos Gymnasium has turned down the application because the school is “full”. Ms Dyani’s appeals have been rejected by the school and by the Province’s MEC for Education. She has now taken the case to the Equality Court.

The South African Constitution is clear about the right to education. Clause 29 of the Bill of Rights says that

Everyone has the right to a basic education, including adult basic education; and to further education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible.

This is reinforced by the Western Cape Provincial School Education Act: “every learner shall be entitled to ordinary education at his or her nearest ordinary public school , insofar as it is reasonably practicable.”

But here’s the rub. The Dyanis live in Kayamandi, the crowded black township close to the centre of Stellenbosch that was established half a century ago for low paid workers in the town. Their nearest high school is in Kayamandi and it is alleged that the school told Voyokazi Dyani that this is where her son “belongs”.

An added twist is that, in addition to being an aspirant rugby player, Ms Dyani’s son attended Rhenish Primary School. Rhenish is as venerable as Paul Roos Gymnasium and, while still in Stellenbosch, is actually a little further from Kayamandi than Paul Roos. While, of course, the principles of the Constitution apply whatever the prior school attended, or sporting preferences, these particular circumstances have combined to set up a high profile test of basic rights in the face of apparent unfair discrimination.

Voyokazi Dyani, herself a teacher, is persistent and determined. She has been waiting for an undue time for a ruling from the South African Human Rights Commission and it seems likely that this case will go through the courts.

It seems to me that a key issue is this:

If the rule that a person has a right to attend the school that is physically nearest to them is used by schools like Paul Roos Gymnasium to exclude applicants from the townships, where residents were previously denied basic rights in terms of apartheid legislation, then how can the far more important principle of the progressive achievement of equity and equality of opportunity in education, as set out in the Constitution, ever be achieved?

In the meanwhile, all strength to Voyokazi Dyani. And how strange that a school named for South Africa’s first foray into international rugby should deny admission to a black player with talent just as the country seeks glory in the World Cup.


Independent online, 27 January 2015.   “School accused of rejecting black pupil”:

Independent online, 10 October 2015. “Stellenbosch admission case on hold”.

Archaeology of the Future

The book that caught the possibilities of a future digital world for me was William Gibson’s Neuromancer. Here is Case, dermatrodes strapped to his forehead and waiting impatiently to get into Simstim:

Cyberspace slid into existence from the cardinal points. Smooth, he thought, but not smooth enough. Have to work on it. Then he keyed the new switch. The abrupt jolt into other flesh. Matrix gone, a wave of sound and color…. She was moving through a crowded street, past stalls vending discount software, prices felt penned on sheets of plastic, fragments of music from countless speakers. Smells of urine, free monomers, perfume, patties of frying krill.

I’ve re-read Neuromancer because I’ve been asked to provide a short segment for a course about our future digital world. What kind of devices will we be using ten years from now? What will advances in artificial intelligence and robotics bring? What will be good, and what will be bad? The answer is simple – we cannot know. The more interesting question is why it is that we cannot know.

When Neuromancer was first published in 1984, I was using an Apple II, with a big monochrome monitor, two floppy disc drives and a box with 28 kb of RAM. There was no wrap-around text and a word could be underlined by putting a six figure code before and after. Thirty years later, Apple’s top of the range phones each have the power of about 70 000 Apple IIs. This is what exponential change looks like. It’s the realization of Gordon Moore’s insight, in 1965, that digital processing power would double every two years or so. Ten years from now, the iPhone 6S will also be an antique; the Apple II is a collector’s item, fetching upwards of $1000.

Humans haven’t experienced the steeper slopes of exponential change before. There of course been disruptive innovations, but these have launched a new equilibrium that has shaped a new normality that has lasted for a reasonable length of time: railways, motorcars, air travel, the telephone, nuclear power. Earlier, technologies remained stable for hundreds of years, and before that for millennia.

As exponential change accelerates – which it must do by definition – it becomes more and more difficult to predict the future because the trends that we deduce from the past become irrelevant. Other than its brand and the use of digital code, the Apple II has nothing in common with the iPhone, and there’s nothing in its design that could have foretold what its linear successor would be like. Consequently, it seems sensible to assume that there’s nothing in today’s leading edge technologies that can tell us what the future of our own lifetimes can bring.

Given this, imagination seems a good bet. Archaeologists are imagineers of the past; we work with fragments and remnants, as much logic as we can muster, and a good deal of informed speculation to put together plausible scenarios. Looked at in this way, gifted science fiction writers like Gibson are the archaeologists of our futures.

For a few frightened seconds he fought helplessly to control her body. Then he willed himself into passivity, became the passenger behind her eyes. The glasses didn’t seem to cut down the sunlight at all. He wondered if the built-in amps compensated automatically. Blue alphanumerics winked the time, low in her left peripheral field. Showing off, he thought. Her body language was disorienting, her style foreign. She seemed continually on the verge of colliding with someone, but people melted out of her way, stepped sideways, made room. ….

Neuromancer does a pretty good job of anticipating Second Life, on-line gaming, the use of avatars and the darker side of the Web. The haptic dimensions of virtual reality – the taste, touch and smell of Simstim that Case experiences through his dermatrodes – are still novelties for us.

Our digital futures, then, cannot be predicted from the technologies of the present because the past becomes irrelevant so quickly. It is this speed of change that is truly new and revolutionary, and a phenomenon that is little understood.

Stateless and undocumented: students in administrative limbo

Refugees often lack documentation. This can have severe consequences for refugee students and for refugees who are potential students.

Colleges and universities require proof of eligibility and of prior qualifications. Speaking at the Going Global conference in London in June, Helena Barroco, coordinator for the Global Platform for Syrian Students, reported that places made available for refugee students in US universities were unfilled because applicants could not provide required documentation.

This problem was emphasized again in September by Marybeth Gruenewald of Educational Credential Evaluators, a non-profit organisation based in Milwaukee. “Very, very few” universities, she said, had considered how to authenticate refugees’ documentation, or had procedures in place to deal with this problem.

Given the progress that has been made with digital verification, individual identity confirmation and secure, on-line storage, this is an unnecessary problem to have. Despite concerns with online fraud and virtual break-ins, a range of systems from airline bookings and passport controls to on-line banking and taxation systems depend on caches of digital records that are secure and can be accessed on-line. There is no technical or administrative reason why universities should continue to depend on certified paper copies of qualifications and academic transcripts.

James King, of the Institute of International Education, has spent a good deal of time in direct discussions with refugee students now in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Their lack of documentation is straightforward and brutal.

Students fleeing Aleppo in the face of imminent attack have no opportunity to find the Registrar’s office at their university to get copies of their transcript; in all likelihood the university is already closed and the Registrar long gone. How can such student be expected to meet a British or American university’s traditional application requirements from a refugee camp in a foreign country?

Open-Badges-napkin-sketchThere are plenty of prototype systems of electronic verification that could be used. Mozilla’s Open Badges, for example, verify learning by providing a person with an online Badge Backpack which can contain accreditation from any participating organization.

Alternatively, Britain’s Higher Education Achievement Record, now widely used, is hosted online by a participating university for its own students, providing an on-line transcript in a secure, standard format that can be used in job applications, in applying for postgraduate courses, or for any other purpose that its owner wants.

More people are currently displaced by violence and on-going conflict than since World War 2. And, given that mass enrolment in Higher Education is a comparatively recent trend, there are more refugee students than ever before. Apart from individual needs and rights, today’s refugee students will be essential for rebuilding countries once peace is restored, or for putting in place solutions to some of the most intractable problems, such as the continuing occupation of Palestinian territories and the continuing consequences of the Rwandan civil war. Consequently, dealing with the administrative problems that are preventing well-qualified refugee students from taking up university places in safe havens is an urgent priority that will bring valuable returns.

There is a clear role here for consortia of universities and national university organizations such as Universities UK or the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS). For example, by building on the investment in HEAR – which provides individual British universities with the facilities for secure on-line student transcripts – such organizations could host a central clearing service for on-line student documentation that is aligned with the work of international refugee support agencies.

In a presentation to a United Nations forum in New York, Mark Zuckerberg recently announced plans to work with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to bring the Internet to refugee camps: “Connectivity will help refugees better access support from the aid community and maintain links to family and loved ones.” Connectivity will also provide for essential administrative services, such as those for potential College students caught up in today’s maelstrom of displacement and dispossession.


BBC, “Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg pledges refugee camp internet access”. 27 September 2015.

Jack Grove, “Refugee student applications ‘testing credential checks’”. Times Higher Education, 21 September 2015

Higher Education Achievement Record:

Mozilla Open Badges: