Universities are ancient institutions. The first university was founded in Bologna, Italy in 1088 and is still in existence. The first universities grew out of monastic schools and catered to the medieval fascination with learning that had been nurtured in monasteries. Bologna University began by teaching law and its application to solve the problems facing society.
Surprisingly, student protests are almost as old as universities themselves. The first record of student unrest comes from the University of Paris in 1229 and led to the institution being closed for more than two years.
The university, founded under church patronage, enrolled students at age fourteen and the curriculum lasted between six and twelve years. Most students came from the aristocratic classes of Europe as tuition fees, lodging and travel costs were beyond the reach of the poor.
The Paris strike of 1229, was in response to excessive force used to quell a pub riot caused by drunken students during a pre-lenten carnival. The students were under church protection. City guardsmen called in to enforce discipline, killed several students; some of whom had not been involved in trashing the pub. The resulting strike saw all tuition stopped for two years and students had to relocate to other universities at Rheims, Oxford or Toulouse. Only the intervention of Pope Gregory IX, an alumni of Paris University, saw classes resume in 1231.
Classically a university was where students went to read and learned how to apply their minds. Universities produced thinkers.
With the rise of the industrial and technical age and recently, the electronic, digital and informational age, new skills were required to keep technology functioning. A new form of technical education institution arose: the polytechnic or technikon. This form of education was significantly different. Technikons produced technicians and engineers who could maintain and service the technology in operation. In recent decades the line between universities producing thinkers and technikons producing technicians has blurred. In South Africa the merging of technicons and universities in the 2000’s was driven by skill shortages caused by a rapidly growing post-sanctions economy.
The nett effect of these dynamics has been that a tertiary education degree or diploma is now regarded as a ticket to a job. That may be a misperception. Statistics SA reports that in the first quarter of 2016, 33,7% of unemployed Black South Africans were graduates, (28,3% of Coloured, 59,7% of Indian and 40,3% of White unemployed)
Underpinning student demands, International Law regards a university education as a universal human right.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 26.1 “Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.”
So if merit and not entitlement is the global criteria, the challenge facing South African universities is how to give meritorious students access to the money.