In a shock move, St Augustine College of South Africa, the private and Catholic Church-owned higher education institution in Johannesburg, has decided to close its campus and suspend undergraduate degree studies because of a severe financial crisis.
On Thursday, the college's management confirmed to the Mail & Guardian it had told students the day before of this development. This has left students frustrated and unsure of their studying prospects, the M&G learned when visiting the campus.
This is despite management's assertion to them that discussions are under way to move those currently in first year and second year to either the University of Witwatersrand or University of Johannesburg (UJ) next year. Those already in third year will complete at St Augustine.
Denise Gordon-Brown, project manager at the institution, told the M&G that unpaid student fees to the tune of R3.5-million accrued over years are largely to blame for the decision taken by the board. St Augustine's board, which is chaired by businessman Bobby Godsell, took the decision to close shop.
"Financial reasons have forced St Augustine to close the campus," said Gordon-Brown. "We're sitting with R3.5-million outstanding debts due to students not paying their fees. We receive no state funding at all and donors, who've been generous, can only give so much."
A third of its staff, including academics, will be retrenched. But postgraduate studies will continue being offered, said Gordon-Brown. St Augustine opened its doors in 1999 only offering post-graduate degrees. It introduced undergraduate classes in 2002, the year it moved to its impressive campus in the leafy suburb of Victory Park. There are currently about 140 undergraduates and more than 90 postgraduates enrolled at the institution.
"We're not insolvent. We have enough assets to cover what we owe creditors. The campus will close and we'll sell the premises. We'll move to a place smaller so that we can continue with postgraduates," said Gordon-Brown.
She was at pains to explain that the undergraduate studies are not being deregistered because the institution continues to exist, but "we’re keeping them in abeyance … We hope to offer them again in future".
The closure of St Augustine's campus opens up questions about the viability of locally owned non-profit universities. Cida City Campus, the low-cost institution in Lyndhurst, Johannesburg, is also battling the threat of liquidation.
What worries St Augustine's students the most is whether they will find a place in the universities as they have been promised.
"If we didn't have a place at UJ when we came here, what makes them think we can find it now," said Georgia Jones. "I tried to register at UJ the year there was a stampede. This was a chance for us to get education and better our lives."
Student Malebo Mahlangu said what frustrated her the most is that "there's no guarantee they'll take us".
But Gordon-Brown said she was confident students should not worry about the possibility of not finding a place at the other universities, as they will now go there having completed either the first or second year of their studies.
"I have a feeling it might not be a reality [that they won't be taken by the universities]. It's a fear, but not reality," she said.
'A big loss'
Student Muzikayise Shabangu said the closure was "really a big loss to South Africa" because the government was already failing to provide university space to every deserving matriculant. "Given that state universities are already overpopulated, this university gave students a chance when we thought it was over."
This is the sentiment shared by Ndamulelo Nemavhandu, also a student: "Already in the country we have a problem with getting people to universities. If the government also funded institutions like ours, we wouldn't close down."
Gordon-Brown also took a swipe at the government for not funding private local universities. "It's not blaming the government, but if you think how desperate we need education in the country it seems a pity the state won't give money to us. One of the reasons the state should be delighted to have us is that our pass rates are quite phenomenal."
She said St Augustine was "private only because it is not getting state funding".
"We take any creed and race. We have one Muslim student who often comes in his religion’s attire."
Chris Rossouw, president of the students' representative council (SRC), said it was regrettable that it had never been mentioned before that the institution had financial problems.
He said things appeared normal up until Wednesday when students were told of closure. "They should have told us as soon as they knew there was a problem. It comes as a big shock to students and we feel a bit helpless.
"They should have approached us as the SRC, to say 'we have this problem. Do you perhaps have innovative ideas?' They should have given a chance to students to come with solutions. I'm sure we could have done something. It seems it was a one-man show."
One student said: "Maybe some of us know [mining magnate] Patrice Motsepe, we could have approached him and perhaps he could have given us R2-million."
Raphael de Kadt, professor of politics at the institution, told the M&G the announcement was a "huge tragedy".
"The lives of many students will be severely affected. St Augustine was offering a unique education experience in South Africa. Its advantages included fast-paced instruction in small classes with close attention to the individual.
"It was playing an especially important role in the high quality tertiary education of black undergraduate students, which is in critical demand in South Africa," said de Kadt.
He said some staff, including senior academics, were retrenched. This was a situation that was "very stressful and difficult", said de Kadt.