Dying for a chance at higher education by Adam Habib

​​Prof Adam Habib, deputy vice-chancellor: research, innovation and advancement at UJ

Published : Times Live, 2011-01-15​
On Tuesday morning, January 10, Gloria Sekwena was part of a 3km queue with her son Kgositsile outside the gates of the Bunting Road campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ). Campus security officials were getting nervous about the restlessness of the crowd and had decided to open the gates at 8am. Fewer than 1000 first-year places were available; the university had allocated the rest of the 11000 places by November 2011. There was a push from the back of the queue, a stampede ensued, and Sekwena was crushed to death. Another 22 people were injured, two seriously.
In the hours following the incident recriminations came thick and fast. Two charges were levelled at the university. First, many suggested that the university had not planned for the event. But this is not true. Confronted with huge numbers for last-minute first-year applications last year, the university had overhauled its procedures for last-minute applications and registration. Registration was organised in the stadium in 2012 so crowds could be better controlled, and residents would not be unduly affected. More staff had been employed in divisions such as applications, support services and medical services. Applications and registrations were separated. Online registration was mainstreamed. Obviously, more can be done and the inquiry appointed by the university will identify these steps.

The second charge was about the irresponsibility of allowing walk-in first-year applications. Many universities do not allow for this, and many queried UJ’s rationale.

One of the mandates of UJ is to provide access to higher education for young men and women from poor and marginalised communities. We know that many in these communities do not apply as per universities’ deadlines. This is not because of irresponsibility, as so many assume. Many of these young men and women do not anticipate passing matric, so university education is not perceived as a possibility. But even when it is, they do not have the information base to determine what and where to study. Remember, our schools in poor communities, particularly in rural settings, are in a crisis and do not have the capacity to serve as a conduit for information, let alone provide advice to their graduating students. Abandoning the walk-in applications process would have effectively meant snuffing out hope where it is most needed.

Clearly, the stampede at UJ should provoke national reflection on the societal dynamics that led to the huge numbers of people at UJ’s gates. The first thing the numbers indicate is the utter desperation that exists among poor people in our society. Higher education may not guarantee a job, but it is increasingly seen as a prerequisite to getting one, and enabling people to escape the grinding poverty in which they and their families are mired. But there aren’t enough post-secondary educational opportunities. There are only 184000 degree, diploma and certificate places in South Africa’s universities and universities of technology – for a graduating matriculation cohort of 384000.

UJ received as many applications in two days as the size of the total undergraduate population of Oxford University, or one-and-a-half times the size of the total student population of Rhodes University. Clearly, there is a desperate need for more post-secondary educational opportunities. Unless South Africa dramatically expands the size of its post-secondary and higher education sectors, we will not only fail to address the structural societal challenges that led to the tragedy at UJ, but we will also not meet the aspirations of our citizenry. Neither will we position ourselves for the modern world. Across the globe, governments are dramatically expanding the size of their university and post-secondary educational systems in order to create the human resources required for a more competitive, globalised world. Unless we do so as well, we are likely to be left behind in the coming decades.

But the numbers of educational opportunities are not the only issue. We also need to think about the kinds of educational opportunities we create. Not only is it impossible, it is also undesirable for us to direct all of the nation’s young men and women to universities. Should not many, if not most, be directed to vocational educational opportunities in further education and training (FET) colleges? Not only will this allow us to absorb the existing three to four million young people who are neither in universities nor employment, but it would also create the space for the more than 50% of our students who drop out on the way to their final year of school.

The Department of Higher Education and Training is aware of this, and Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande has made the growth of the FET sector his ministerial priority. But the numbers outside UJ suggest that young people are just not enthused at the prospect. Currently the FET sector has neither the credibility nor the capacity to meet legitimate rising expectations. Clearly the problem we have is at the level of implementation. Given this, it is imperative that all sectors – government, universities, business, and labour – come together to assist the department in building the FET sector and enabling it to realise its responsibilities. The collective prize is worth the effort. If we succeed in achieving this, not only will we address the skills shortages that afflict the South African economy, we will also create hope among a volatile constituency, thereby stabilising our political and socio-economic transition.

But even if we get the universities and the FET sector working, we would still not avoid what happened at UJ unless we get the schools in poor, marginalised communities working, and career guidance within them functioning effectively. Fixing career guidance in our schools, so that they are in a position to receive information from universities and FET colleges about post-secondary educational opportunities and financing, and can advise their graduating cohort about what and where to study, is essential to avoid the last-minute rush.

If we are to honour the memory of Gloria Sekwena, it is imperative that we do not find glib answers to the development dilemmas we confront. It is possible to address our challenges in this sector. Other countries, including developing ones, have done it. But a precondition for progress is accurate diagnosis. This is the true challenge we confront at this tragic moment.

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