Access to education and training is one of the few avenues out of poverty and are sure avenue to maintain pre-existing privilege. Someone smart wrote in one of those UK publications, the kind you can take seriously, about the glass floor. Many of us would have heard about the glass ceiling – apparently there is a glass floor too. You can see through both even when you never breach them.
The way the glass floor works is that once your family reaches a particular level of material well being, you as a child – no matter how shitty- will never fall below a certain level or standard of living. One of the many reasons for this is the childhood and upbringing you get to experience and enjoy. In Cape Town you would have attended SACS, Rondebosch, Bishops. In Johannesburg you would have attended St. Johns, St. Stithians, King David. Yes, these are all boys schools. You would, depending on your family choices, proceed to UCT, Wits, Stellenbosch. Sometimes with the mates you made in prep (they are not called primary schools like in the townships and other suburbs close to railway lines.
These relationships persist and are generally mutually supportive too. The relationships help with employment opportunities later in life and provide access to various other opportunities that are not readily available for Sue Ordinary or Normal Sibeko. The material wellbeing and social standing of the families provide a safety catch, the glass ceiling through which the children will hardly ever fall.
Keeping the status quo means that these unearned privileges persist and the membership of the smart class remains fairly monolithic. Of course once in a while a son of a convicted felon, a poor mother struggling to make ends meet – so bad that the son has to grow up in a children’s home – breaks the glass ceiling and becomes one of our finest judges. This is hardly the point.
Hopefully the events of the past couple of weeks will go a long way to start a proper rethink of access to tertiary institutions. Of course along the way you will be met with asinine comments aplenty. Some are so cleverly disguised you will get tempted to engage them. One that caught my attention is how the question of universities autonomy is suddenly muddled up with governments obligation to fund universities. I always try to have civil engagements on Twitter – except with Helen Zille, Dan Roodt and Steve Hofmeyr – I find it very difficult, especially with the two of them who are reasonably intelligent folk. This autonomy versus government involvement debate tested the limits of my civility. Anyhow, I suggested, as I do now that the autonomy of the university is and must remain in respect of what to teach, how to teach and who to teach it too. This limited only by the anti-discrimination constitutional safeguards. Similarly, the government has a role to play in the access to tertiary education and to ensure that this right is realised by all – subject of course to the constitutional limitations of the right. In fact the government is enjoined to protect and safeguard the autonomy of the universities – this is almost as right as we are told paying TV licences and e-tolls is. Just because government coughs up the money – rightly so as it is its duty and not a favour to the citizenry - the government doesn't buy the right to meddle. The flip-side is that the universities may not use autonomy to implement discriminatory policies or policies meant to benefit only a few privileged members of the university community. Be it language or basic amenities such as a beer once in a while. Being poor at Bethel High School near Bodenstein is not an issue. Even the “rich” there struggled – there was nothing to buy, the whole experience of the school was pro poor. Being poor in Rosebank Cape Town is a whole different proposition. The emotional and mental toll of it is largely ignored because those who suffer from it don’t really want to talk about it and for the rest, such do not really exist. It does however make the tough environment that much harder. Throw in the under-preparedness of the same students the you have the perfect academic/financial exclusion cocktail.
These are difficult issues to address. No wonder they are the problems of governments and universities. The smartest among us are rightfully tasked with solving the toughest of our challenges. A pissing autonomy/funding contest just make me want to choke the pompous out of them. Both sides have performed poorly in managing their respective sides of this complex. Both sides have now been emphatically reminded whom and what this is all about – the students (present and future) and SA’s tomorrow. Now, will that rumoured 3 year old report that apparently contains the making of free tertiary education see the light of day and scrutiny? Will the funding and expenses of the universities become more transparent and have people on them who have more than the glass-floor perspective?
As for the student movement that put a pause on our business-as-usual asses I can only say, congratulations and well done. It also showed me the wisdom of my grandmother – which I never doubted past the age of 38 – that if you want anything DONE, give it to the WOMEN, if you want anything DISCUSSED, give it to the men. Which brings up another question, why is having a penis still such a thing?