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Westcol Student: ‘I’d study anywhere except here’

“Anywhere but here,” one student at the Amandelbult campus of the Western College for Further Education and Training replied to the Mail & Guardian‘s question.

She and another seven students were standing in a large steel shipping container of the kind many poor and overcrowded schools use as temporary classrooms. At the Amandelbult campus in Limpopo, it serves as a lecture room.

The students looked at each other and nodded their heads, arms folded.

“It’s one thing to think to yourself: ‘I could have done better in that exam if I’d studied harder’,” she said. “It’s really something else to think, ‘I could’ve done better if I’d had a lecturer for this course, or a book.’ “

Students who spoke to the M&G this week asked to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions from university authorities.

The campus has 300 students and is situated on the Anglo Platinum Tumela mine between the towns of Thabazimbi and Northam. It consists of a handful of steel containers on a grassy patch with kilometres of veld on one side and a dusty village for mine employees on the other.

There were no lecturers for maths, business practice and office practice, students said. This means that for about three lectures a day they “just sit there”.

“We get confused but there is no one you can approach for help. So we have to self-study with our books,” said one student who enrolled at the college this year.

Another said: “We just have to find another student who understands the work and maybe he will help us. But it shouldn’t be like that – it makes me angry.”

On paper, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande agrees it shouldn’t be like this. According to the white paper on post-school education and training he released in January, the department’s “highest priority is to strengthen and expand the public technical and vocational education and training colleges” – the new name for further education and training colleges. The goal is to “turn them into attractive institutions of choice for school-leavers”.

The country’s 50 colleges have about 160 campuses and roughly half of the nearly one million students enrolled at universities. The government’s ambitious aim is that, by 2030, colleges will have between two and three times the number of university students.

But the reality on the ground is that many colleges are struggling, said Joy Papier, director of post-school studies at the University of the Western Cape.

“This campus is not an isolated case. A significant amount of money has been pumped into [the] colleges and the white paper speaks very strongly to their becoming the first choice for young people. But there is still a serious lack of management and teaching capacity in them.”

No financial aid
The Amandelbult students said “not getting financial aid” was their biggest problem, and this amounted to “financial exclusion of the poor”.

“Young people here are the kind that would need financial aid,” one said. “Their parents work at the mines or as domestic workers – they don’t earn enough to pay for college.”

Some students had to write their first-semester exams without textbooks for certain subjects, “like for maths”, said one. “Most of us failed.”

The students have written many emails to the Amandelbult campus’s management, the college’s head office and Nzimande’s department about problems that, they said, “delay [their] plans for the future”.

They said they had never received a direct response from any of the three. “No reply makes us feel like we are not relevant,” said one student.

But the students remain determined to resolve problems that they say are particularly harmful to the surrounding community.

Future generations
“How will these people’s lives improve if they can’t learn skills?” said one. “You don’t want another person to go through what we have gone through. That’s why we won’t give up.”

Ivor Baatjes, the director of the Centre for Integrated Post-School Education and Training at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, said: “The need for more financial support is evident in student protests earlier this year at many colleges and the problem remains unresolved.”

About R2-billion has been spent on infrastructure, as part of the government’s “recapitalisation process [that included] intensive efforts to improve management, governance, administration, programme offerings, human resources, student services as well as increasing student success rates”.

But many colleges “have simply been unable to cope”, Baatjes said.

“The staff turnover is high and morale low. Although the government budget has been increased, it appears to be insufficient. It is simply not in sync with the growth in student numbers, which requires an increase in budget for other resources – both human and material.”

Campus management referred the M&G‘s questions to Nzimande’s department. Spokesperson Kefilwe Makhanya said the college had “challenges in attracting qualified candidates for some subjects”. “Positions have had to be re-advertised” and temporary lecturers have assisted in the meantime.

“All students have now received textbooks,” she said. On bursaries, “the department does not disburse [these] directly to students”, and problems should be raised with college management or the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.”The need for more financial support is evident in student protests earlier this year and the problem remains unresolved”

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Victoria John
Victoria studied journalism, specialising in photojournalism, at Rhodes University from 2004 to 2007. After traveling around the US and a brief stint in the UK she did a year's internship at The Independent on Saturday in Durban. She then worked as a reporter for the South African Press Association for a year before joining the Mail & Guardian as an education reporter in August 2011.

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