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Tackling our education concerns

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GILLIAN KLAWANSKY

Professor Adam Habib, the vice-chancellor of Wits University; Elliot Wolf, director of the King David Schools Foundation and a former King David Linksfield High School principal; and Rabbi Dovid Hazdan, the dean of Torah Academy Schools, tackled these and other issues at Sydenham Shul’s 2018 Learning Launch, which took place this week.

“It was clear for a long time that we were heading for a major explosion,” said Habib, speaking about Fees Must Fall. “We just didn’t expect it to happen so soon. The last thing that I imagined was that the explosion would happen when I became vice-chancellor!”

That Fees Must Fall had a strong case was undeniable, said Habib. “In 1994, we had about 420 000 students in South African universities. Ten years later, there were 1.1 million. We more than doubled our numbers, yet the money from government didn’t increase – the per capita investment had begun to decline.

“At Wits University in 1994, 70% of the university budget was paid for by the state. In 2015, it was paying half of that.”

The only way to keep standards high was to start increasing fees, sometimes even from 10% to 12%, he said. By 2015, if you had a child living in residence, accommodation and fees would cost you R110 000 for the year.

“Student fees were completely unsustainable for lower- and middle-income groups. The students had a legitimate cause. But this does not give you the right to violate the very ethics of struggle. How you conduct that struggle is important. You can’t say you believe in free education and then want to burn down the university and stop lectures and exams. You can’t say you want to create an inclusive society and then resort to racism.”

Habib also spoke of the need to look at other options as university isn’t for everyone. The future world of work will be fundamentally transformed and our education needs to reflect this, he argued.

Speaking of the current standard of South African universities, Habib painted a bright picture. “Too many people see protests, yet at the height of the movement there were actually only four days of violent protest at Wits. There was gross media misrepresentation.”

If you look at the indicators of how to judge a university, it’s research output, it’s graduates, it’s results and it’s rankings, explained Habib. “In every one of those indicators, Wits has steadily improved since 2013. In 2016 – at the height of the protests – results plateaued, but in 2017 they rose again. If you look at the indicators, we’ve never done as well as we’re doing. But if you look at the headlines, that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

For parents who send their kids to overseas universities, Habib advised caution due to the sheer volume of options available overseas. “I’ve seen students go to universities in the UK or US that are ranked lower than any of ours.”

Racism, anti-Semitism and sexual harassment are just as evident in overseas universities, he said. And there you’ll be paying more than R1 million. “Comparatively, at our top 10 universities you’re getting a class education at an incredible price.”

Speaking of the viability of the ANC’s promise of free education for lower-income students, Habib said it all depends on government’s ability to turn the economy around. “The scenario is not doom or gloom We have to collectively fight for the future we want – if we do that, then we have a chance.”

Taking to the podium, Wolf spoke of the value of Jewish day schools. “The role of Jewish day schools today is firmly established and their existence is never questioned. Yet, in 1947, the very idea of King David was highly controversial,” he said.

At the time, the community argued against separating ourselves from the wider society. “Yet in 1948, King David was established and today, as we celebrate its 70th anniversary, there’s little need to debate the enduring benefits of such an education or the essential role all Jewish day schools play in the community.

“I witnessed, in my 34 years at King David Linksfield, generations of confident graduates who faced the future with no inferiority complex and an innate ability to integrate into general society as equal participants. Many feel that their education was the springboard for their future success.”

Yet Wolf argued that the true mark of King David graduates lay in the values they uphold. “I strongly believe that the success of the school should not be solely assessed on matric results. The hidden curriculum of values, decency, integrity, tolerance and gemilut chesed – the fundamental principles of our Jewish heritage – are just as important.”

There’s no denying, though, that academic results speak for themselves and the quality of a King David education cannot be denied.

Speaking of what’s on many parents’ minds, Wolf said: “The costs of Jewish education inevitably escalate every year. All private school education is expensive. There’s been no government support since 1994. Our schools are community schools, so we have a responsibility to offer a Jewish education to all deserving students whose parents don’t have the means to afford the fees.

“Subsidies are based on stringent criteria. With many government schools in crisis, private school education is largely the only option, with Jewish day schools the natural choice. We’re proud that over 500 students are subsidised in our schools.”

Yet quality cannot be compromised, he argued, which is why fundraising is so important.

Rabbi Hazdan stressed how education, especially Torah learning, is at the heart of Judaism. “Nationhood begins with asking and answering questions,” he said. “Through all the horrors the Jewish nation had to endure, they maintained energy and strength to survive and endure through their Torah studies.

“Historically, education was about information, but with time we needed the skills to apply the education. Skills are needed because of the unprecedented rate of change. We have no idea what the workplace will look like even five years from now – we need to adapt.

“Beyond information and skills, the most important element of education is the imparting of values – man’s search for meaning needs to be part of our schools. The moral fibre of our society is unravelling… and we have to redefine and rethink what it means to educate children.

Acknowledging the exorbitant fees around which our education crisis is centred, Hazdan suggested a different outlook. “Every crisis affords us an opportunity for introspection, to think about our attitudes towards education and its relevance in our daily lives,” he said.

The answer is not to diminish the value of Jewish educational institutions, or of a secular and Torah education. It’s a challenge for schools to work together to pool resources, share a vision and consolidate efforts to reduce costs without adversely affecting education – something Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein is working to do with small Torah schools, he said.

 “Our grandparents saw paying school fees as their first priority, not as an afterthought. Education should be the first place we want to put our salaries.”

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