Balancing act: Fewer undergrads, more postgrads

Every year matriculants clamour to get into the country’s universities — but the institutions want to restrict the number of undergraduate admissions.

The University of the Witwatersrand plans to decrease undergraduate enrolments by 800 annually for the next five years — 4 000 in total. At the same time, it wants to increase its postgraduate programme by the same number of students.

The office of Wits deputy vice-chancellor Andrew Crouch said it would partially make up for the displacement of full-time undergraduate numbers by increasing intake in part-time enrolments. “Currently there are 1 350 part-time students registered at Wits Plus. We aim to increase this to 3 000 by 2020,” Crouch said in an email. This is an increase of less than 50% of the reduced undergraduate spaces.

The university received more than 69 000 applications from prospective first-years this year but could only accept 6 200. The university says its plan to increase its postgraduate numbers is required to reach its target of 16 200 postgraduates by 2022, while maintaining the current student body at about 36 000.

Wits’s senior executive team says in an email to students that its 2022 vision is to become more research-oriented and “globally competitive”.

Attempts to limit undergraduate admission follows huge growth in tertiary education admissions since 1994 — the student head count has doubled from about 500 000 to about one million this year.

Wits is not the only institution with this plan. The University of Cape Town’s 2020 strategy does not explicitly say how it will split enrolments. Its evaluation of the 2010-2014 strategic plan says it met its goal of increasing its postgraduates and kept undergraduate numbers steady. It says this indicates the university is on track to achieve its ideal size and shape by 2020.

Rhodes University’s Institutional Development Plan 2017-2022 discloses a similar plan. Spokesperson Veliswa Mhlope saidthe plan was “posted on the university website in error” and doesn’t have official status.

Stellenbosch University’s website says it also has a research-based focus. But in Stellenbosch’s case the growth of its undergraduates is limited because of, the university says, declining numbers of qualified school-leavers, infrastructure limitations and two new universities that recently opened in Northern Cape and Mpumalanga.

Universities across the country have in the past few years seen protests as students called for greater access to tertiary education.

Wits Student Representative Council president Oridiretse Masebe says it would oppose any strategy that reduces undergraduate student numbers while students struggle to be admitted to institutions.

Servaas van der Berg, an economics lecturer at Stellenbosch, says that, although universities have made these projections, often strategies are not implemented because of the realities on the ground. He says Wits can’t simply close its doors to more people than they currently have, given the demands in the system. Instead, it is more likely there will be a different “balance” in the expansion of the student body.

Ahmed Bawa, the chief executive of Universities South Africa, says universities are under pressure to increase their research output to compete in world rankings.

There is an ongoing debate about institutional mandates, he says. The department of higher education and training favours a diverse offering of tertiary education, with some universities focusing on research and others on teaching and skills development.

Bawa warns that, because of infrastructure limitations, universities cannot continue to grow indefinitely. The long-term sustainability of the system is dependent on having a functioning technical and vocational education and training sector.

A tertiary qualification is a ticket to a job. Statistics South Africa figures released last month show unemployment for graduates at 5.4%. The comparable rates for those with a matric are 28.7% and 32.7% without a matric.

Van der Berg agrees, saying that, unlike in other countries, the big demand to get into university is driven by the fact that people earn so much more with a degree.

“If one looks at the German system, going into vocational education is not seen as inferior because you can earn a good salary and it has a high status in society — but in our system there’s nothing of that sort.”

Bawa says societies that invest in postgraduate education and research “produce the most amount of innovation; and therefore expand economies”.

He added that, although some universities will be more research-based, the department’s role is to ensure that undergraduate enrolments are not undermined. —Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust trainee at the M&G

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Tebogo Tshwane
Tebogo Tshwane

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial journalism trainee at the Mail & Guardian. She was previously a general news intern at Eyewitness News and a current affairs show presenter at the Voice of Wits FM. Tshwane is passionate about socioeconomic issues and understanding how macroeconomic activities affect ordinary people. She holds a journalism honours degree from Wits University. 

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