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Tertiary education disaster looms

Marianne Merten

Parliament has been warned of an impending collapse of university and technikon education because of drastically falling student numbers. The Council on Higher Education this week told MPs there were at least 100E000 fewer students at tertiary education institutions than predicted in 1995. And, the council said, the majority of students appear out of step with South Africa’s economic realities as most still graduate in humanities, rather than science and technology.

Initial calculations in 1995 estimated an annual 4% increase in student numbers from 570E000 to 710E000 in the year 2002. Instead numbers dwindled to 560E000 last year.

The council was established in 1998 as an education advisory body. It is expected to submit its final report and recommendations on the size and shape of South Africa’s higher education system to the minister of education by the end of June.

The council’s task team found white students, in particular, were not enroling in universities. At technikons, enrolment levels have dropped from 70% five years ago to 20% now.

Hardest hit by the declining enrolment figures are the historically black universities. Most rely heavily on government subsidies, which are based on the number of students. As government grants dry up in real terms, fees are increased and collection methods tightened. This means many students from disadvantaged backgrounds cannot afford to go on to tertiary studies.

Sources say it was unpalatable for the government to face up to the fact that there may be potential higher education students who could not afford to study further.

The director of the education NGO Centre for Higher Education Transformation, Nico Cloete, echoed the council’s finding that the drop in numbers of matriculants with university exemptions is also to blame.

Of the half-a-million pupils who wrote the final exam last year 272E000 passed, but only 69 800 obtained the exemption that allows entry into higher education.

The pool of potential students in the science and medical fields shrank even more because only around 20 000 of the matriculants had passed mathematics on higher grade, Cloete said.

These findings are similar to research by two Cape academics: the head of the education policy unit at the University of Western Cape, Dr George Subotzky, and Professor David Cooper from the University of Cape Town’s department of sociology.

Both say more black students, particularly women, have entered higher education over the past decade. But the new entrants are yet to make substantial inroads in science, technology, business and commerce and, generally, postgraduate studies.

The two academics believe one reason for the declining numbers of white students is emigration. But, more significantly, weak students who may have studied a Bachelor of Arts degree with the knowledge it would secure a civil service job no longer have this option. Instead, they enrol in one of the many private colleges which have mushroomed in recent years on the promise of a more job- orientated education for those with an ordinary matric pass.

Afrikaans universities seem to be less affected by declining student numbers as they have attracted increasing numbers of black students, particularly since 1995. One reason was that Afrikaans universities are regarded as better equipped and their degrees held in better esteem by future employers.

In contrast, Subotzky and Cooper say, enrolment at former black universities has declined since 1996 as financial support, like civil service bursaries from the former Bantustans, has dried up while stricter fee payment requirements are in place.

While many, from researchers to administrators, in higher education said they were not surprised by the council’s findings, government officials may have been caught off-guard. One reason for this is that the Department of Education did not have up-to-date records until mid-1999, when the council started its research.

The role of private colleges remains the big unknown in higher education. But the registration of private colleges with the education department as required under the Higher Education Act has been an uphill battle.

“Registration has been complex. We are aware that there are many institutions that haven’t even made the application,” said Deputy Director General for Higher Education Nasima Badsha.

Likely changes in higher education institutions are expected to be announced in August after Minister of Education Kader Asmal presented Cabinet with recommendations based on the Council on Higher Education’s final report.

A possible shake-up of the crumbling higher education system comes as the government continues its drive to emphasise science, technology and business studies as part of boosting South Africa’s global competitiveness.

Ministerial adviser Allan Taylor said it was important to look at how higher education institutions can best provide tertiary education to match the changing needs of the country.

“It is not our intention to close any institutions and that hasn’t been discussed,” Taylor said.

Meanwhile, the Council on Higher Education has prepared a sensitive and potentially controversial discussion document on a possible restructuring of the tertiary institutions among national education stakeholders. Education sources say up for debate is a possible a three- tier higher education system: a two-year diploma-type bridging course, three to four-year undergraduate degree and post- graduate study at research institutions.

Some have expressed concern that students would have to move from one institution to another to pursue their studies.

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