A three-week delay in the release of certain exam results at further education and training (FET) colleges has angered students and damaged their confidence in a sector that the government urgently wants to expand.
Results of first-trimester engineering exams for 72 000 students were due to be released on May 6, but were delayed after a leak of exam papers was detected. Following investigations, quality assurer Umalusi approved the release this week of results for all campuses, except for the 27 across seven provinces that it found were implicated in the leaks.
The problem is perennial in the FET sector, however. "Question papers are leaking to students like a rusty tin roof on a rainy day," said a lecturer at King Sabata Dalindyebo college in the Eastern Cape, who asked not to be named.
Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education and training, has been pumping billions of rands into the sector in a bid to position colleges as "first choice" destinations for students. His plan is to expand enrolment exponentially, from about 500 000 now to four million in 2030.
But school-leavers often regard FET colleges as mere fallback options if they fail to secure a place at university, as the Mail & Guardian reported this year ("Matriculants want universities — not FETs", January 11).
The delay in releasing results has caused severe financial and academic problems for thousands of students. Students could not access bursaries from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme because they were required to produce their latest results during registration starting on May 7 for the second trimester.
"Most students have been left out and many are no longer in residence," Mohale Ramosunya, the president of the student
representative council at the Central Johannesburg College, told the M&G.
Study time lost during the delay is also damaging, Ramosunya said.
"The [next] examination date doesn't change. We still have to write on the dates already set."
While the leak was being investigated, students were "promoted" to the next level without results on the instruction of the higher education and training department.
The King Sabata Dalindyebo lecturer said: "Some students are confused by this. [It] means that if they were doing [one level], they've moved to [the next one] now".
"If they have any failed courses in [the preceding level] they'll repeat them next term, because at the end of the day they have to pass the required courses for a diploma."
Compounding the confusion is an SMS the M&G has seen that is circulating among college students alleging that the department deducted 25% from all engineering students because of the leaks.
However, the department's director general, Gwebinkundla Qonde, dismissed the SMS as "mischievous". "On what basis would we deduct marks? In an exam, there's a moderation of marks. We can't institute a blanket deduction."
The department had satisfied itself that its officials were not involved in leaks, Qonde said. "The evidence is that this thing is happening in the surroundings of colleges. The first culprits are private colleges."
The leaks were "creating problems for both students and the system," he said. "It's important to call on students not to get themselves on the wrong side of the law. They must not buy question papers because they become culprits themselves."
A mechanical engineering student from the Sedibeng FET in Vereeniging who is convinced she failed because of the rumoured 25% deduction said: "I failed three subjects I know I worked my butt off for … I registered again this trimester, but it seems like we are just wasting our parents' money and our time."
Nhlamulo Sewela, Gauteng provincial secretary of the South African Students Congress, said students would march on the department in protest next Friday.
"It can't be that the problem [of leaks and delayed results] recurs every year, but there's no action. We believe it's because the department doesn't take the sector seriously."