Medical students have called for not only fees to fall but the creation of a campus clinic that would provide them access to mental health services
Medical students have called for not only fees to fall but the creation of a campus clinic that would provide them access to mental health services (Mike Hutchings, Reuters)

Free, decolonised education is key to producing health workers conscious of social justice.


Senior academics at the University of Cape Town (UCT) faculty of health sciences have supported calls for free education as classes at the campus resumed on Monday.

The School of Public Health and Family Medicine expressed its support for the Fees Must Fall movement in a statement by senior professors and heads of department, given the country’s increasing levels of inequality and the slow pace of transformation in higher education.

“Public universities can and must be engines for societal change. We believe that free education should be viewed as a fundamental public good, which will benefit society,” says the statement issued late last week and circulated via social media.

The school has called for not only free education but also the decolonisation of medical education. The school’s director, Mohamed Jeebhay, says medical schools have focused simply on producing qualified graduates but have failed to instil in alumni the sense of social justice to make them “fit for purpose” in a country with high levels of inequality and need.

“Historically, the education system has been very focused on producing doctors who may not necessarily be fit for purpose within the current context, and that has contributed to the maldistribution of doctors between urban and rural areas,” Jeebhay told Bhekisisa, alluding to the relatively small number of doctors who chose to take up rural placements in the public sector.

He says that without this type of orientation, healthcare workers may not understand how the conditions in which we live, work and grow help determine our health.

“The current system is based on biomedical approaches and reproduces the kinds of hierarchies that are present within the health sector, and neglects the social and political aspects that impact on health.”

The statement comes more than a week after health sciences students made public a list of demands, including an increase in available financial assistance. The students suggested that private companies, particularly private hospital groups, be lobbied to contribute.

They demanded the faculty of health sciences pay for hepatitis B vaccinations for students on financial assistance. Health workers are required to be vaccinated against the virus, which attacks the liver and can be transmitted via contact with contaminated blood or bodily fluids in healthcare facilities, according to the World Health Organisation.

UCT’s faculty of health sciences led a September 22 protest outside Parliament. In a letter of demand signed by vice-chancellor Max Price, they demanded a new policy for funding higher education be put in place before the 2017-2018 budget speech.

In its most recent statement, the school of public health and family medicine remains adamant that South Africa can afford to introduce free tertiary education.

Jeebhay says: “There have been declining allocations of resources to higher education over the past decade. One of the key issues that is coming across is the lack of government’s political will with regards to improving resources for higher education.”