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Monako Dibetle, Primarashni Gower, Thabo Mohlala11 Jan 2009 05:00
About 22 000 more matric candidates achieved university entrance in 2008 than in the previous year, but many cannot be absorbed into an overtaxed tertiary education system.
The 26% rise in “matric exemptions”—from 85 000 in 2007 to 107 000 last year—comes despite the drop in the overall pass rate for the new National Senior Certificate (NSC) from 65% to 62,5%.
Up to 50% of university students fail or drop out before completing undergraduate degrees.
“The system cannot accommodate all these students this year,” said Theuns Eloff, chairperson of the vice-chancellors’ association, Higher Education South Africa.
Eloff said the education department had earmarked R3,2-billion for spending on infrastructure and graduate outputs, allowing a number of universities to grow in terms of class size. But building would only start next year.
He added: “Admission requirements still remain at universities and it does not mean that all will qualify for entrance into disciplines, many of which have stringent entrance requirements.
“Furthermore, it does not mean that they will all have the money to go to university.”
Education department Deputy Director General Molapo Qhobela conceded that the universities were full and urged matriculants to look to further education and training colleges, which offered “excellent vocational training”.
The first-year intake at South Africa’s 23 public universities is estimated at 150 000 students, including repeaters and Unisa students. The government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme only caters for 125 000 students each year.
The department is targeting a university student population of 820 000 by 2010, with an average growth rate of 2,1% a year. It also wants 17,5% of 18 to 24 year olds to be at university, up from the current 16%.
In 2007 there were 741 000 students in the system. This year the figure is expected to rise to 798 000, indicating that the plan is on track.
University of Cape Town higher education specialist Nan Yeld echoed Eloff’s warning that not all qualifying students would make it to university in 2009 “because of size and shape constraints”.
“Some institutions in the rural areas might have space, but access [to the institutions] will be difficult,” Yeld said.
She said universities were concerned that prospective first-year students are achieving higher than anticipated admission scores.
The improvement is attributed to seemingly inflated maths marks. Education analysts have questioned the standard of the maths and maths literacy papers, believing they were too easy.
Yeld said students who qualified for extended degree programmes based on their provisional results now qualified for mainstream degrees. This meant they would not get the academic support they need, a challenge for universities.
Bonny Feldman of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme said the scheme only funds students already accepted for studies at a public higher education institution.
Students also had to qualify for financial aid in terms of the national means test. However, Russell Wildeman of the Institute for Democracy in South Africa said the increase in students eligible for university study was “excellent”. The declining trend in matric passes would have to be arrested at some stage and this could be the start.
Deputy Director General Penny Vinjevold said the additional numbers who had achieved university entrance passes were learners who had previously written the standard grade exam.
“My sense is that the teachers and the learners worked harder and that the department gave learners and teachers more support,” she said.
Wits University registrar Derek Swemmer confirmed that since the university opened this weeks, it had been inundated with applications from students who unexpectedly obtained university entrance passes.
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