Digital Vs. Physical Disruption: The #Feesmustfall Movement in South Africa

Saturday, 21 July 2018: 09:15
Oral Presentation
Mariya IVANCHEVA, University of Leeds, United Kingdom
Rebecca SWATRZ, University of Cape Town/University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
Situated within the literature on social movements and contentious politics, student movements are often explored solely from the perspective of student actors on the ground: their identity and frame formation, action repertoires, resource mobilisation and institutionalisation strategies. This paper takes a different approach by discussing how key decision-makers at South African universities responded to the #FeesMustFall movement. Drawing on qualitative interviews with thirty higher education leaders, government and non-government policy-makers, and digital technologists at six universities and first-hand experiences and observations during the protests, we discuss an unintended outcome of the disruptive tactics of the movement. In the face of physical disruptions on campuses, senior management and policy-makers have increasingly looked to ways of circumventing physical space as the main site of the educational process. This has coincided with the entry of private providers into the South African higher education field. These companies offer ‘digital disruption’ of traditional face-to-face degrees through ‘unbundled’ provision of short courses, MOOCs, and online degrees. These actors’ entry into the South African market has occurred concurrently with an economic recession, and growing political crisis in the country. In the face of austerity policies and lack of government intervention, elite public universities began to search for alternative sources of revenue in order to respond to student demands for fee-free education. Our research shows that in this conjuncture, universities have increasingly opened up to partnering with for-profit actors offering market solutions to solve a crisis created by the increasing commodification of education in this context. Showing how physical disruption has made way for increased digital provision, we argue that the perspectives of those in positions of power need to be studied more carefully by movement actors and scholars as unintended outcomes threaten to subvert movement strategies and demands for a more just decolonial and decommodified university.