St Augustine College to reinstate undergrad studies

St Augustine College of South Africa has announced it will be reinstating its undergraduate programmes. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

St Augustine College of South Africa has announced it will be reinstating its undergraduate programmes. (Madelene Cronje, M&G)

After a two-year abeyance, bachelor of arts and bachelor of theology programmes are set to return in 2016 at St Augustine College of South Africa - which offers students an alternative to obtain university qualifications. 

The Mail & Guardian reported in September 2013 that the institution had decided to suspend the undergraduate degree studies because of a severe financial crisis.

At the time St Augustine was R3.5-million in the red, a shortfall that management said was accumulated due to student debt arising over a number of years.  

The institution continued teaching postgraduate students, which included honour’s, masters and doctorate candidates. It also did not deregister the undergraduate studies, with a management member at the time emphasising “we hope to offer [it to] them again in future”.

But now the dire financial situation has been resolved, management told the M&G this week.
The institution also unveiled Garth Abraham, who is formerly a professor of law at Wits University, as its new president and chief executive officer. 

“The previous board took a decision to put the undergraduate programme in abeyance in an effort to consolidate our financial infrastructure. We really needed to do a significant overhaul in terms of promoting sustainability,” Nicholas Rowe, academic dean, told the M&G in the interview. 

“In that [process], the previous board resigned and we had a new board at the beginning of 2014. The new board set about the task of restructuring the infrastructure of the institution, particularly restructuring the financial issues. 

“We’ve been very much in austerity the last couple of years and we’re now in a position where we can re-introduce undergraduate education. We’re looking forward to that.”

Rowe said the institution has also had to improve internal procedures. “Our new board also has been very active in terms of bringing expertise in finance and marketing.”

Viability of non-profit universities
St Augustine’s financial troubles in 2013 opened up questions about the viability of locally owned non-profit universities. 

Cida City Campus, the low-cost institution in Lyndhurst, Johannesburg, was also facing a funding storm at the time and subsequently closed doors last December. It is currently under provisional liquidation.

Private higher education institutions do not receive government funding, something that also compounds their financial problems. 

Rowe revealed they are pinning hopes on a trust they want to establish, in order to deal with student debt successfully. 

“We had a lot of fee-paying students, but we also had students who really battled financially. So, we’re in the process of setting up a trust that will call upon people who really have a vision for supporting and sustaining quality students.”

The trust would provide bursaries for students. “That structure should be set up quite soon,” added Rowe.

Abraham interjected: “We will also have fee-paying students. We’ll also have contributions from South Africans, not just Catholic South Africans but South Africans generally who are interested in ethical leadership.

“The international community, particularly the international Catholic community in the Americas and across Europe, is also contributing. To get financially secure in a shorter time as possible is our priority.”

St Augustine opened its doors in 1999 only offering postgraduate degrees. It introduced undergraduate classes in 2002, the year it moved to its impressive campus in the leafy suburb of Victory Park. 

Despite being a Catholic institution, St Augustine maintains it is “by no means exclusivist or parochial … our rootedness in the Catholic ethos allows us to be truly open to people of all faiths and cultures”. 

It aims to enroll about 130 new undergraduate students next. St Augustine has infrastructure capacity to subsequently take 500 students. 

Just like Cida, St Augustine positions itself as an alternative option to students to obtain degrees. While the country’s public universities now enroll over a million students, many more students battle to find space. 

Rowe said: “There is such a screaming need for education at the undergraduate level. With all due respect to our public universities, there simply is just not enough space. They themselves know that and they articulate it very loudly that there’s only a certain number that they can take. 

“Although new public universities are being built in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape, the reality is that half of South Africa’s population is under 25 years old. We’re looking at a big bump of people coming through the [basic education] system and many of them are hungry for education. We have to explore ways of meeting that demand.”

Rowe said it was about time the government considered funding private universities like St Augustine.

“I think there now needs to be a very strong look at what private higher education has the possibility to offer. I know that the emphasis has been on public education, but I think the numbers are very clear-cut now that it is clearly insufficient to do that. Private education needs to partner with the public in order to respond to that need.”

Bongani Nkosi

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