Tensions simmer over first-year university enrolments for 2017

The South African Students Congress (Sasco) has warned that students will revolt if the department of higher education and training reduces first-year intake at the country’s 26 universities next year.

According to a document titled 2017 Readiness of Universities and TVET [technical and vocational education and training] Colleges, the projected enrolment target for first-year university students has been set at 196 391 compared with this year’s 212 472 projected enrolment, a decrease of more than 16 000.

Student numbers at the country’s 20 TVET colleges may be capped at 710 535 until the end of 2019, according to the document, which was recently discussed in Parliament. The enrolment target for next year at the colleges was initially set at 829 000.

Sasco said it foresaw a “serious problem” should the department press ahead with its plans.

“If the department is not going to take the students that we are assisting with registration, they must just expect the worst out of us,” said Sasco deputy president Tsakani Shiviti.

“We foresee a serious problem if the department wants to reduce the intake of first years. You are saying that people who must be studying must now take the route of becoming criminals because we are taking away their rights to learn.”

In its Readiness of Universities document, the department urged universities to manage their enrolments, especially that of first-year students, according to the targets laid down in their enrolment plans. “Overenrolment must be avoided,” it said.

The total university population is projected to increase by only 5 169 from 1 035 931 this year to 1 041 100 next year.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande will continue to meet the leaders of student representative councils and other student organisations up to next year’s registration period, to encourage dialogue and stability in the system.

“The higher education system is still reliant on student fees to provide affordable and quality education, and will continue to be until such time as a new policy position is adopted at a political level,” the document said.

“Protesting students must stop destroying and burning university property and attacking non-protesting students and staff.”

The department has already advised colleges that next year’s 829 000 enrolment target will not be reached and this year’s enrolment of 710 535 will have to be maintained next year. Targets after 2017 “will not increase if additional funding is not available”, the document stated.

Of the 710 535 students at colleges, 45 787 are funded by the Sector Education and Training Authority, National Skills Fund and others. Of the remaining 664 748 students, 429 638 are fully funded in accordance with the TVET funding norms.

The department plans to write off 75% to 80% of the R1.25-billion student debt at the colleges.

Shiviti said Sasco had not been consulted by the department on the issue of reducing university student numbers and capping enrolment at colleges.

She urged the department to instead increase the student intake. “They need to come up with a proper strategy of taking in students.

“If we reduce the intake of students at TVET colleges, we are saying people must go home and be useless.”

She said Sasco would fight for those eligible students who are refused admission. “Student protests are not the only solution but it’s just the popular thing that we usually do as students to attract the attention of government.”

South African Union of Students (Saus) president Avela Mjajubana said the union would also object to any plans to cut first-year enrolment at universities.

“We have said that no deserving student should be denied access to an institution of higher learning and we stick by that.”

Mjajubana said Saus would monitor registrations at universities to ensure there was no reduction in first-year intake.

Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa, a body representing vice-chancellors, said first-year intake depended, among other things, on variables such as how much financial aid was available.

“The bottom line is that there is an enrolment plan, which has been developed over the last five years. Each university has an enrolment plan. So it’s not an attempt to cut down on numbers.”

Mjajubana said Saus would ask the registrars of universities to explain their enrolment plans for next year when they met on December 8.

Bawa said he would like to get a better understanding of how the department arrived at its enrolment figures.

The department had not responded to questions at the time of publication.

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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