Would-be students scramble to enrol

Prospective students stand in a long queue at the University of Johannesburg to register to study. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Prospective students stand in a long queue at the University of Johannesburg to register to study. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

For most of this week Nqobile Ndlovu has roamed the streets of Soshanguve, Pretoria, late at night and then started walking them again at the crack of dawn.

The 17-year-old left her home in Mangweni, Mpumalanga, on Sunday morning with one thing in mind — to enrol at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).

She does not know anyone in Pretoria and it is her first time in the city.

“We arrived at about 5pm [on Sunday] and we were walking around with our luggage until about 10pm because we had nowhere to go,” she said.

One of the friends she travelled with decided to call a neighbour back home who is a senior student at TUT to ask if they could sleep in the room he rents in Soshanguve.

He agreed, but his landlord found out and told the prospective students that he did not want to see them in his yard again.

“So we took our luggage and walked around the neighbourhood until around 11pm and went back there to sleep when we knew people were asleep and would not see us. But we had to leave early so that the neighbours did not see that we slept there,” Nqobile said.

By 3am on Monday, she and her two friends were already queuing outside TUT’s Soshanguve North campus. She was not prepared for the news she received after queuing for nine hours in the scorching 35°C Pretoria sun.

“They told us that registration starts next week Monday. I am disappointed because the reason I came here so early was to register and see if I can get into a residence or not.”

Nqobile said she applied to study teaching or nursing at TUT last year. She never received an acceptance letter but, when she checked the status of her application online she saw that it had been processed.

She is not sure what her future entails but is adamant that going back to Mpumalanga is not an option.

Her mother, who has part-time jobs, gave her R2 000, of which R1 500 is for registration, R200 is for food and the rest is for returning home once she has registered.

“I’m regretting why I came here and what is worse is that my parents are far; they are in Mpumalanga and there is no one I can turn to for help. Now I can really see that life is tough. I can’t afford to go home so I have to stick around here until Monday even though I don’t know what is going to happen on Monday.”

Again on Monday and Tuesday, Nqobile and her friends had to walk the streets of Soshanguve until late, sneaking into the house and leaving again early to avoid the landlord.

But on Wednesday they had to move out because their neighbour had returned. The three friends found a backroom to rent for R2 100, which means they had to pay R700 each. Nqobile took this from the money meant for registration. If she is accepted at the university on Monday, she will have to go back home and ask for more money to register.

Nqobile’s story is not unique. Outside the TUT Soshanguve North campus on Monday, the Mail & Guardian heard the stories of prospective students from as far afield as Limpopo who had to sleep at police stations because they had nowhere to go. Students sat in groups outside the gates of the campus with big suitcases and black bags containing their belongings. Some did not know where they would spend the night and did not have money to go back home.

These stories have become synonymous with the start of the academic year throughout the country.

Although many universities have said that they will not accept walk-ins or do not have space for more first-year students, there were still long queues outside their gates this week.

Universities South Africa (USAf), the body representing universities, announced on January 1 that all 26 public universities would not be allowing walk-ins. But after university representatives met on Monday, USAF decided on a “more flexible approach” and to allow walk-ins at those universities that still have space available.

“Universities will not turn students away; they will assist them. It also depends on what the situation is on each campus. But, as things stand, we are saying, where there are places, those universities will give consideration. They might still ask students to apply online because most of the universities are asking students to do an online application,” USAf chief executive Ahmed Bawa said.

Despite the Economic Freedom Fighters’ student wing calling on prospective students to walk into universities and ask for placement, Bawa said there had not been a dramatic increase in the number of prospective students turning up at the campuses.

“What we are getting from the universities at the moment is that there might be a slight increase [compared with previous years]. But we don’t really know yet; it’s still very early … That might change in the next couple of days,” he said.

Some universities, such as the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), are already full. Wits received 56 901 first-year applications for 2018 but only had space for 5 664 new students.

After years of #FeesMustFall protests and President Jacob Zuma’s announcement of free higher education for poor and working-class students last year, Wits and the University of Johannesburg (UJ) looked like they were preparing for war this week. Wits had applied for 30 extra security guards from a private company and UJ had students applying online in a barricaded parking lot.

But, as private security officer Percy Manganye from Wits said: “It has been pretty peaceful so far.”

However, countrywide peaceful registrations were marred on Thursday morning after the Economic Freedom Fighters Student Command’s call for maticulants to walk in and register led to six prospective students being injured in a stampede at the Capricorn technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college in Polokwane.

Some universities have not reached their full complement of first-year students and the universities of Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) had made provision for walk-in applications even before USAf’s change of heart.

UKZN said it had started to receive walk-in applicants as early as January 2, who were processed as late applications. The university’s Normah Zondo said it had 8 776 places for first-year students and had made provisional offers to about 4 855 students.

The University of Limpopo’s Kgalema Mohuba said the university found it easier to deal with walk-in students because it could assist them on the spot. He said the university had space for 4 550 first-year students and was dealing with those who had received provisional acceptance letters first, with the rest to follow.

Prospective students have also been encouraged to send an SMS, call the toll-free number or apply online to the department of higher education’s central application clearing house.

The system has a database of all available space in the post-school sector and the prospective students’ details are sent to all the institutions that have space in the applicants’ desired study fields to see whether they qualify for acceptance.

Bawa said there were about 400 000 university spaces available in the tertiary education sector.

But many students are still not applying to study at TVET colleges.

Professor Elias Mathipa, of Unisa’s school of education, said the long queues at the universities were the result of the government’s lack of planning and because decisions had been informed by politics rather than by educationally sound principles.

“We closed 150 colleges of education. Today, students who would have gone to the 150 colleges are now ... directed to the university. And now the universities cannot cope. We closed down nursing colleges and nurses must now be produced by universities.

“We came up with the concept of merging universities from 36 to 23 … and created this problem that we are in today.”

He said prospective students were not considering TVET colleges because they saw them as an extension of matric.

“We have TVET colleges. They are a branch that is not marketed; it’s unknown. They [the government] did not market the branch so that people can see them as an alternative. So students want to go to universities,” he said.

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie

Gemma Ritchie works in the Mail & Guardian's online department. She majored in English Literature at a small liberal arts college in the USA. 
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