University is not right for everyone

South Africa’s higher education system has adequate space to accommodate people coming out of the basic education sector, but they are not correctly placed in the post-schooling system. This causes panic, according to academics.

Long queues outside universities at the start of each year have become a normal occurrence, even though universities have tried to discourage walk-in applicants.

Some of these young people did not believe they would do well enough in matric to qualify to go to university. Others had been rejected by universities because these institutions only had the capacity to enrol a certain number of first-year students.

According to Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa — an organisation that represents public universities — institutions manage their enrolments very carefully so as not to under-enrol or over-enrol because that would affect their government subsidies.

In a written reply to Parliament in November, Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor said the 26 universities only had space for 210 800 first-year students and the 50 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges had space for 240 392.

Based on these figures, Bawa believes there is, in fact, enough space for people who qualify to study at these tertiary institutions.

TVET colleges have about 250 campuses across the country.

Of the 400 761 pupils who wrote matric last year, 172 43 attained bachelor passes and 141 700 are eligible for diploma courses. The latter are likely to find a place at a university of technology.

“I don’t think that students who qualify will not be able to find a place at university — at least that’s what the current data shows,” said Bawa. He added that research has also shown that 30% of pupils who qualify to study at university choose not to. This opens up further space for students who want to attend universities.

But the vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology, Professor Thandwa Mthembu, explained that young people are often misdirected when they enter the post-school system, preferring university to technical college.

TVET colleges enrolments are a fraction of university enrolments, which get double or triple the number of applications.

A 2018 report by the department of higher education and training, titled The Provisioning of Post-school Education and Training: A Statistical Overview, showed that in 2016 about a million students enrolled at universities compared with just 700  00 at TVET colleges.

Mthembu said the problem was that young people think that university “is perhaps the only thing”.

“Not everybody should be seen as having to enrol at a university. Universities are at the apex of the system … therefore you do not expect everybody to be there,” he said.

In fact, according to Bawa, young people who study at TVET colleges stand a far greater chance of finding employment. There is a shortage of those qualified in the skills offered at TVET colleges and in artisan programmes.

Yonke Twani, the president of the South African Further Education and Training Student Association, an association of TVET college students, thinks the government has failed to market and promote TVET colleges properly.

This is why communities and young people do not consider these colleges as a first option, he said.

Instead, TVET colleges are viewed as a “waiting station”.

“Once a student is not accepted at a university the last resort will be to go to a TVET. [But] they do not go to a TVET because they want to acquire a skill — they are going there to a place known as a dumping site … They are going there to just wait for the second semester or next year so that they can enrol at university,” he said.

Bawa said persuading young people that there were alternatives available was a challenge.

“If you enter a TVET college and you do well you can either go into the workspace or you can progress into university. Going to a TVET college opens up channels,” Bawa said.

Twani added that the country is in dire need of scarce skills and artisans such as boilermakers, plumbers and electricians. These courses are available at TVET colleges.

“HR [human resources] is not a scarce skill, social work is not a scarce skill, but we are in need of engineers. We have thousands of students that have done HR at university and they are unemployed. But once you have a TVET graduate with a civil engineering qualification it’s easier for that person to become employed.

“Those are the things they are not telling the society and that’s why our communities are narrow-minded, [believing] that TVET colleges are just a dumping site,” said Twani.

But the vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg, Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, believes that the country’s higher education system is not big enough to serve the population. He said the long queues outside universities demonstrate a need for the post-school higher education system to expand.

“If we continue to make advances in getting more people to complete high school, we will seriously have huge shortages. So … we cannot have a viable long-term plan without thinking about additional universities.

“Some people will have to go to TVET colleges and some people will go to universities.

“The question is: Those people who have to go to TVET colleges, is there enough space for them? And those people who have to go to university, is there enough space for them? It’s not one or the other; we need both. We need to expand on both,” Marwala said.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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