There is growing anxiety that thousands of university hopefuls will be left in the cold following President Jacob Zuma’s sudden announcement last year that poor and marginalised students qualify for free higher education.
South African universities have to fast come up with a plan to ensure applications go smoothly. Last year, tens of thousands of students were turned away because there were not enough places for those wanting to do firstyear courses.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal received about 89 700 first year applications for 8 700 places; the University of Witwatersrand received more than 70 000 applications for 6 200 places; the University of the Western Cape received 30 000 applications for 4 500 places; the University of Fort Hare received 32 602 applications for 5 542 places; and the University of Cape Town received 26 416 applications for 4 200 places.
With tertiary institutions already flustered by Zuma’s announcement, the EFF’s Julius Malema added fuel to the fire this week by calling on students who qualify to walk in and personally apply to universities. However, Universities South Africa (USAf) said this would not be allowed and potential firstyears would have to use the mechanisms in place for enrolment.
According to reports, 798 289 pupils wrote the government matric exam, with another 12 000 doing the Independent Examination Board (IEB) exam. The government matric cohort is 37 838 less than in 2016.
If about 25% of government school students get university entrance grades, that will mean close to 200 000 will be looking for first year places. Then an additional 10 700 from the IEB schools will also be applying.
USAf CEO Ahmed Bawa said Zuma’s abrupt announcement had thrown institutions off balance.
“We were very disconcerted by that. The fact of the matter is we really needed about a year to roll this system out. And instead we got two to three weeks. That is just a recipe for errors.”
An agreement has thus been made between universities and the department of higher education to ensure each institution sticks with their enrolment plans.
“The enrolment plans are negotiated between each university and the department. It takes into account a whole range of factors, including infrastructure and human capacity.”
It also looks at the availability of subsidies from the state, he added. This is a five-year plan with the intake for 2018 set at 208 000 across the spectrum.
“So, the big challenge for the universities now is to really maintain the enrolment plan. If we simply have a huge increase in student intake, that will have an extraordinarily detrimental impact on the university system. Universities will therefore have to ensure enrolment plans are adhered to.
“The fact is universities are all operating very much at capacity. Basically, the only way you can accommodate a significantly larger number of students is by increasing staff and having larger classes and so on,” said Bawa.
Bawa asked students who haven’t applied and think they qualify to submit their details to the central application system and not to walk in.
“The department together with universities will work out how best to place those students, either at universities or TVET colleges.”
But he pointed out that the closing date for applications had already passed last year.
“So basically it will really be the department of higher education and training, working together with universities to place students who submit their de tails. It’s worked over the last two years and we hope that it will work again this year,” Bawa said.
He also criticised using the fee issue as a political football.
United Democratic Movement leader Bantu Holomisa meanwhile called Zuma’s announcement a “populist Hail Mary pass”.
He added: “We have to keep in mind that three years of tertiary investment leads to 40 years of tax revenue from graduate incomes.
“The challenge will, however, be a fair and orderly implementation. It should not be assumptive and aggressive in pursuit of political positioning.”
Zuma and his Cabinet must “urgently spell out this plan” in detail to avoid a commotion at registration, he said.