`Black' varsities facing closure

Joshua Amupadhi

THE 17 universities and technikons created for blacks are struggling to survive in the post-apartheid era. Some face closure unless drastic rescue efforts are put in train.

About 100 000 students are at the universities with more than 30 000 at the technikons.

The warning about their plight comes from Professor Cecil Abrahams, vice-chancellor of the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and a committee member of the Historically Disadvantaged Tertiary Education Institutions (HDIs).

Abrahams declined in an interview with the Mail & Guardian to name any particular institution, but said: “You could just look at the amount of debt and the lack of academic and support services infrastructure some of them are faced with ...
to realise they will not survive, but others are better placed.”

One of the institutions he has in mind seems to be the University of Zululand (UniZulu) which is carrying a debt of R20-million incurred by former students. UniZulu representative Carl de Villiers said there was little chance of recovering a large part of this. Some of it was owed by students who had completed their courses but would not get their degrees until they paid. But the biggest portion was owed by drop-outs.

De Villiers said the outlook for UniZulu was bleak because, unlike former white universities, the HDIs did not have cash reserves on which to fall back.

Professor Abrahams said there was a growing perception that historically black campuses were second-class institutions, despite having been the pride of the majority in the past.

He said the HDIs, which have made it their mission to serve the disadvantaged, remained critically under-funded.

“We have not yet received the attention to make us compete [with former white counterparts]. Sometimes we feel that racial problems [on former white campuses] are getting more attention while substantial issues at HDIs are ignored.”

Apart from the funding problem the number of students at HDIs was growing faster than could be accommodated, he noted. For example, UWC had an average student-lecturer ratio of 31:1 compared with 14:1 at its neighbours - the University of Cape Town, the Cape Technikon and Stellenbosch University. Getting students from poor high school backgrounds, he said, meant more resources needed to be spent on bridging programmes. “The problem is not one of attracting students to our institution, but we are drawing students with the weakest matriculation results.”

Because of better resources and facilities, former white universities and technikons were “drawing students from the cream of the crop”.

According to Abrahams, many of the institutions expected conditions to improve in the new political order, and instead have found themselves pushed to the verge of complete marginalisation.

Echoing this, the vice-chancellor of the University of Fort Hare, Professor Mbulelo Mzamane, told the M&G: “As we emerged from the past as a historically disadvantaged institution, we had hoped to get a post- apartheid dividend, from the new democratic government, as a reward for our heroic struggle against apartheid over the years. We are still waiting for this - two years into independence.”

The University of the Western Cape’s registrar for finance Andre de Wet said it took at least two years to recover 70% of money owed by students.

In a bid to deal with these problems faculty deans from several historically black universities and technikons met in Mmabatho last month and agreed that isolation and inadequate funding were key obstacles faced by the HDIs in competing with former white counterparts. They decided to strengthen links with each other and discussed ways to “enhance academic excellence”. They plan to co-ordinate research and to campaign for funds.

Professor Phineas Mabetoa, dean of the faculty of health and social sciences at the University of the North West, told the M&G: “Our aim is to get all the country’s tertiary education institutions together, especially our white counterparts who are well-endowed with facilities and human resources.”

However, the Mmabatho meeting was weakened by the fact that only five of the country’s 17 HDIs attended. Organisers said this was due to poor communication and late invitations.

In other interviews with the M&G, Professor Joe Teffo, executive assistant to the vice- chancellor at the University of the North, said HDIs had to design “innovative” methods and create a culture of learning to attract the best students and staff.

“There has been a discrepancy in funding and developing of infrastructure but we should make the best out of the worst conditions,” he said. Academics moving to the former white universities, “to beef up already advanced institutions”, were perpetuating the imbalances.

The national president of the South African Students’ Congress (Sasco), David Makhura, said the curricula at some of the HDIs were “shameful” as they still reflected the past educational system.

“The HDIs should be given adequate resources because the competition for students remained unfairly in favour of the former white campuses.”

Makhura added: “We want every institution to be developed into a truly South African institution. What the former white institutions have is resources and infrastructure. But their values, academic research and so on should be directed to the people of South Africa.”

A representative of the University of Venda, Rufus Kharidzha, said the government had to develop a special funding system for the HDIs. The current system whereby natural sciences received higher government subsidies was unfair because the majority of black students studied non-science subjects. The University of Venda, he said, had 7 000 students - more than double its planned 3 000.

Ministry of Education representative Lincoln Mali said it would be of little use to dish out money without having a proper policy in place. A green paper on high education, to be issued soon, will deal with funding and other matters aimed at redressing past imbalances.

On the brain-drain by academics to former white campuses or to government, Mali said: “That is a matter of individual choice but as part of the redress factor the government will look at staff development.”

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