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Dreams, despondency and lost opportunities — the scramble for places at South African universities

Professor Nadine Petersen is Executive Dean: Faculty of Education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Dr Denyse Webbstock is Senior Director: Institutional Planning, Evaluation and Monitoring at UJ. They recently published an opinion article that first appeared in the Daily Maverick on 30 January 2023.

Every year, as soon as the matric results are released and representatives from higher education have responded to questions about the credibility of the pass rate, attention rapidly shifts to managing the incoming university applications.

The big question for those with Bachelor’s passes is, will they get a place at university? This year, 278,814 candidates passed with so-called Bachelor’s passes, 193,357 with passes that potentially allow them to enrol for Diploma studies, and 108,159 with access to Higher Certificates.

Judging by the number of applications received by universities, studying at a university seems to be the overriding ambition for most. Although the government has invested in providing funding for technical and vocational colleges, it is still a sector that needs much development.

The months of January and February are extremely busy times for the university leadership. At the University of Johannesburg (UJ), for instance, there is a constant flow of information on the availability of spaces in programmes across the various faculties, with a focus on how the university targets are being met.

Managing learner expectations in an environment where there are several hundred thousand applications to UJ for 10,500 available spaces is by no means an easy task. In the midst of all of this, imagine opening your emails to find the following:

“Good morning, Prof. I am writing this email to you because I am very despondent about the fact that it is for the second year that my child has been placed on a waiting list. I do not have faith in the system any longer or in the hope that she will get a place at UJ. I do not know how to respond to the anger and despair that I see in my daughter’s eyes when she gets this response. She is worried that she will be rejected again this year. I am afraid. I do not want my daughter to become another unemployed and angry statistic. What kind of job will she find without any higher education? Please help me secure a place for my child in your faculty.”

Or reading the following on Twitter: “UJ is the mother of all rejections!”

For us, this kind of email from a parent or Twitter comment is devastating, to say the least. We feel the pain of learners who want to further their education but hit stumbling blocks along the way. We understand the pain of rejection and despondency that sets in when it seems like pathways to higher education are closed.

We applaud the desire for education. Many parents and caregivers in South Africa have not had the opportunity to study at a higher education institution and they want that for their children. There are many economic and social advantages to being educated.

In data from studies conducted by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), people with higher levels of education are “more likely to find employment, stay employed, learn new skills on the job, and earn more over their working life relative to those with lower levels of education”.

Education is also credited with providing opportunities for people to move up the social ladder and create more equitable societies.

But, when faced with emails and Twitter remarks such as these, there is no easy response. Much as we would like to provide a positive outcome, it is very often not within our control.

There are a few reasons for this. First, the university level of the post-school higher education sector is currently the most desired, the largest and the most developed.

One could think of the post-school sector as a pyramid, with university-level study at the top, supported by a broad range of well-developed and desirable post-school educational opportunities for school-leavers that cater for different interests and needs and that support a modern economy.

These non-university educational opportunities – technical, vocational, creative and entrepreneurial – offer diverse career paths that universities are not really designed for. This is the case in most successful economies.

But for a whole host of reasons, South African school leavers do not generally gravitate to these, nor are those layers particularly well-developed and sizeable enough to accommodate potential entrants.

This means that the university sector is faced with many more applications than it can accommodate. It is tough for school leavers who have done their best but may not be among the small proportion who secure a place at university.

Secondly, universities are not able to increase their enrolments according to demand. University students in the public sector are subsidised by the government according to negotiated plans for six-year cycles. Essentially, universities have a contract with government to admit X number of students in a particular year to secure their funding and will be penalised financially if they enrol 2% more or less than the number that has been agreed on. Hence the targets.

It’s a very complex process to manage, as each programme can only enrol a particular number of students, determined by the programmes that have been approved at government level, and the planned targets, which have been informed by the available resources within the university.

Thirdly, every programme has certain entry requirements. As a general indication, some universities use a point system, which adds up the results of applicants’ matric subjects in a particular way — called the minimum Admissions Points Score (APS).

An APS is considered to be a measure of a learner’s performance in the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examination. There are also threshold scores in a subject/s that are important to inform success in a field — e.g., maths, but also language, and other criteria, such as aptitude for design.

So, a “Bachelor’s pass” may not be enough for students to gain entry to their programme of choice at university. That’s a tough realisation for many.

A place at university is not guaranteed because there simply is not enough space to accommodate all applicants who meet the minimum requirements.

By way of example, in 2022, UJ received 23,598 applications for the BEd Intermediate Phase qualification, of which 2,468 met all the requirements for admission. In 2023, the programme attracted 32,491 applications with 3,905 meeting the requirements for admission.

For 120 available spaces!

This means that only the top 120 academically qualifying students are admitted. It is similar for most qualifications at UJ — thousands of applications for very few spaces. The reality is that a student’s results may place them in the lower range of the 3,905 students who meet the minimum requirements for admission, making it unlikely that s/he will get a place.

For any student, this is a bitter pill to swallow. It is this kind of disappointment that gives rise to the angry emails from parents and learners and negative Twitter commentary at the beginning of every academic year. There is not much we can do about the lack of spaces at university.

What we can do, however, is to start talking about the shifts that should be occurring in the education system and ask the difficult questions we have been avoiding for too long now.

Are we having critical conversations with learners and parents about what a Bachelor’s pass means in relation to university entrance requirements?

Are we creating sufficient alternative pathways to enable all learners who wish to study the opportunity to do so? Why is it that university is still regarded as the primary pathway for further education and training? How do we begin to change these perceptions?

What can we do to strengthen the technical and vocational college sector? How do we work with schools to ensure that learners have the competencies that will equip them for the world of work? How do we promote entrepreneurship at school level and support for new small business creation for school leavers?

Perhaps it is time that we establish a firm social compact, with concrete timelines, involving national departments of education, universities, the technical and vocational sector, business and other relevant stakeholders to address the critical questions we have posed.

We are afraid that if we do not put our collective energies into managing this crisis, we risk increasing the disappointment and despair of the young people we want to assist in becoming productive members of society.

*The views expressed in this article are that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect that of the University of Johannesburg.

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