Runaway numbers squeeze universities

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Either fees must go up, or the National Student Financial Aid Scheme allocations will have to.

T’S that time of year when thousands of successful matriculants are trying to gain entry to one of South Africa’s 23 tertiary institutions.

Long queues of late applicants have again formed outside some universities. There were no queues outside the University of Johannesburg (UJ) because we provided complete online application facilities, but there were close to 30 000 calls to our call centre and a similar number of hits on our mobisite.

It is gratifying to know that our institutions of higher learning are so popular and our young people understand that tertiary education can provide the door to a better future — for them, their families and their communities. However, it is also tragic that so many applicants will not make it through the university gate.

Our universities are criticised at times for not being more accessible. That is only partly true. They have finite capacity and resources and they must maintain entry requirements to ensure that academic standards are not compromised.

Two new universities, in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape, are being established, but even when they are fully functional our university system will be unable to cope. Many worthy students will fall through the cracks — and they are the tip of the iceberg.

It is what lies beneath that should really concern us: 56% of pupils who entered the schooling system did not even get to write matric in 2012.

Of the 624 000 pupils who sat for the national senior certificate (matric) last year, only 26.6% with an average pass rate of 50% qualified for university exemption to sit for bachelor degrees. Even if one adds those who qualify for diploma studies at universities, there is a huge attrition rate.

That is a lot of hope dashed and a massive amount of human potential lost. The country must suffer as a result.

Exclusivity may be a general public perception when students and parents see the poignant queues outside our university gates at this time of the year. From inside the university, however, it presents another picture altogether.

Universities are under considerable stress. They are under pressure to increase intake numbers and must balance the massification of higher education with the nonnegotiable need to maintain academic standards.

This is no easy task, particularly for universities such as UJ that are committed to educating the poor, because the overall quality of students coming through the gate reflects deficits in the schooling system, which is forcing university managements to invest heavily in academic and socio-psycho support for many students.

In the case of UJ, this support amounted to about R88-million last year and this year the figure will be close to R100-million. In a normal environment, these funds could be used to supplement student fees and bolster the academy.

Equally, in a normal environment, a university such as UJ would not be putting almost R30-million a year aside from its own resources to feed hungry students. But we are not in a normal situation and will not be for many years to come.

Universities are also expected to immerse themselves in community engagement, which is important in the South African context, of course, but this commitment constitutes a further tax on academic and university-wide resources.

Increased student intakes and support mean that academic teaching loads are increasing exponentially. Academics are also under pressure to produce more accredited research.

All this indicates a major squeeze on university resources, both financial and human. We have already passed the point where the major source of student funding at public universities, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, can cope with the demand. The scheme’s funding stood at R2.6-billion in 2011 and is expected to rise to R3.6billion this year. UJ’s forecast allocation for 2013 is R298million, 8% higher than in 2012, but this falls well short of the current need, which we estimate will result in a shortfall of R192-million, up from R9-million in 2009.

At UJ, the annual average growth in applications to the scheme has been 11.8% since 2006, from 7 894 applications to 19 520 this year, 69% of whom qualify for the funding, according to UJ’s trend analysis. The implication of this staggering growth in demand is that fewer firstyears can start their studies and fewer senior students can continue without funding from the scheme.

Last year, UJ spent R45-million of its own reserves to augment the scheme’s funding. This was in addition to R89-million spent on bursaries. This year, it will allocate only R20-million to the scheme, whereas bursary funding has increased to R107-million.

Unlike universities in developed countries, where shortfalls have been met by student fee increases, in South Africa fee increases are extremely sensitive and tend to lead to volatile reactions. Equally sensitive is the exclusion of senior students for financial reasons and, unfortunately, this is already happening.

Our universities are between a rock and a hard place. As things stand, the funding model is simply not sustainable. We either grasp the nettle of fee increases and cap entry, or scheme allocations have to increase in line with the government’s desire to educate its best young minds.

In the South African context, the latter is really the only sensible option, but it needs to happen now.

Picture credit:

  • Professor Rensburg is principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. This article was published on Sunday Times.




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