Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has failed to keep his promise to the matric class of 2015 to introduce a seamless centralised system that would allow those who passed with university-entrance results to apply for admission to any university or university of technology.
But the plan to introduce such a system has been in its pipeline for 12 years. In 2002, the education ministry envisaged an application system that would be a national facility. It would receive and process applications on behalf of the then 15 universities and 21 technikons (later renamed universities of technology).
Nzimande has said the government had shelved this plan because university mergers were looming. He recently shifted implementation of the system to 2017 because of uncertainty that the central application system (CAS) would not be in place when 2015 matriculants started applying for admission to any of the now 26 universities.
It would not be up and running within the next few months either, officials believed. Qualifying 2017 matriculants would be applying for university admission in 2018. Nzimande unveiled urgent and widely publicised plans for the CAS in January 2012. He did so in the week that Gloria Sekwena — who was assisting her son in trying for admission to the University of Johannesburg — died in a stampede at the university’s gates. Thousands of late applicants had queued to seek admission.
Nzimande’s department presented the plan to Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training in February 2012. The presentation promised that the system would be “developed during 2013 for piloting in 2014 and implementation in 2015”.
The department’s 2012 annual performance plan repeated these targets, vowing that the “service should be fully operational in 2014/2015”.
Fast-forward to January this year and all the department has put in place is a “central applications clearing house”. First implemented in January 2013, the department has described this as a “pilot” project. This “clearing house” is a call centre the department has operated in the two Januaries since then. Agents answering calls take down the details of hopefuls who haven’t yet been admitted to any university and pass them on to various institutions they think are appropriate to a student’s tertiary-study wishes.
A major advantage for applicants, especially those from poor families, is that they would need to pay only one fee to apply to many institutions.
At a press briefing in Pretoria on January 12, Nzimande seemed unsure when the CAS would become fully functional. “With this system, which we still hope to introduce,” he began, but before he completed his sentence, he turned to the department’s director general, Gwebs Qonde, and asked: “DG, is it [by] next year or 2017?” In “2017,” answered Engela van Staden, the department’s chief director for academic planning and management support.
This week Diane Parker, the department’s acting deputy director general for higher education, confirmed the new deadline with the M&G. But she denied that this confirmed any deferral of implementation: “There is no goalpost shift,” she said.
“The minister indicated that the system would be operational for universities by March 2018. The testing of the service and system will take place in 2017 through a targeted implementation process at selected institutions.
“Thereafter, if there are no major design challenges, the full scale of the service and the system is expected to be operationalised in 2018 and rolled out across all universities in line with their IT readiness.”
Parker said the implementation of the CAS started in 2013 when the “clearing house” was piloted”.
The department saw the “central applications clearing house” as part of “the piloting phase, representing the departure point for the concept and design of what the full roll-out of CAS will entail”, according to Parker.
“Therefore there has been no delay in the introduction of the system and service. “However, its roll-out is [within] a time frame that is designed to ensure success,” she said.
At his January 12 media briefing, Nzimande said there were “204 522 new entrant opportunities at universities” this year.
Of the 532 860 grade 12 pupils who wrote matric in 2014, 403 874 pupils passed with marks that Nzimande said enabled:
• 150 752 pupils to qualify for admission to bachelor studies at universities;
• 166 689 pupils to qualify for admission to diploma studies at tertiary institutions; and
• 86 022 pupils to qualify for admission to higher certificate studies.
But only “204 522 new entrants wishing to pursue their studies across all general technical and professional fields, including business and management, science, engineering, agriculture and technology, humanities, social sciences, the arts and education” will find “our public universities provid[ing] access” to them, the minister said.
Ntuthuko Makhombothi, president of the South African Students’ Congress, told the M&G his ANC-aligned organisation “raised our concerns when we met the minister this month [January 2015]”.
“We were informed that the deadline [had] moved to 2017 for conceptualisation and 2018 for implementation.
“This is a concern because we’re shifting our goalposts all the time.” He said the application fees that most universities continue to make a condition of admission cripplingly disadvantaged poor students.
“Many students find it difficult to apply on time to some institutions, simply because they can only afford to apply at one. When it rejects you, then you have a problem because you’ve not applied at any another institution.”
Yusuf Cassim, the Democratic Alliance’s member of Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education, said it was always doubtful the department had the staffing complement and competence to establish and implement the CAS successfully.
Only political promises
“The minister makes a lot of political promises without the capacity to deliver on them,” he told the M&G.
From the outset, the department’s approach to getting the CAS going has lacked the blessing of many universities, and only a qualified welcome from others. Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), which represents all university vice-chancellors, warned in 2012 the scheme wouldn’t work unless universities owned it and was not “operated unilaterally by any [single] role player”.
Jeffrey Mabelebele, Hesa’s chief executive, told the M&G his organisation had established a joint working group with the department “to address some of these concerns. We hope they will be addressed.”
The 2017 deadline results from talks in this working group, said Mabelebele. “We think that working together we should be able to achieve an effective and efficient system by that deadline.”