Working Paper 15
Public higher education in peril? A view from down south
Published March 2017

Professor Jenni Case from the University of Cape Town discusses how the response of one South African university to recent student protests raises broader questions around the purposes of higher education.

The paper highlights the unprecedented levels of student protest in South African universities – such as #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall – which led to campus shutdowns in 2016.

Professor Case analyses the apparent crisis of legitimacy experienced by the University of Cape Town as a result of these protests. She looks at how the protests called into question the relation between university and society and created uncertainty over the future shape of public higher education in South Africa.

How can we justify the existence of a university in the context of a radically unequal society? To address this question, Professor Case argues that we need to reconceptualise what we mean by the public good purposes of the university.

Such an argument is not, she emphasises, purely theoretical. The shift in recent years to define the purposes of the university in instrumental and extrinsic terms has made it vulnerable. Professor Case concludes that if universities are to maintain their unique role in society there is urgent and important work to be done.