Universities between a rock and a hard place

​​It’s that time of year when thousands of successful matriculants, driven by hope and youthful optimism, are trying to gain entry to one of the country’s 23 tertiary institutions.​

Once more long queues of late applicants have formed outside some of our universities and images of these eager youngsters standing in the hot sun have been prominent in the media. There were no queues outside the University of Johannesburg this year as the university provided full online applications facilities, but there were close to 30 000 calls to UJ’s 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 that 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 university applicants will be disappointed and will not make it through the university gate. Our universities are criticised at times for not being more accessible. That’s only partly true. They have finite capacity and resources, and they must maintain entry requirements to ensure academic standards are not compromised. Two new universities, in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape, are being established, but even when these are fully functional our university system will be unable to cope with the number of applications each year. Many worthy students will fall through the cracks and they are just the tip of the iceberg.
It’s what lies beneath that should really concern us. Fifty six per cent of SA learners who entered the schooling system never even got to write matric in 2012. Of the 624 000 learners 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 in our education pipeline. That’s 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 right now. They are under pressure to increase intake numbers and are having to balance massification of higher education with the non-negotiable need to maintain academic standards. This is no easy task, particularly for those universities such as UJ which are committed to educating the poor, as 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 entering the system. In the case of UJ, this support amounted to around 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 to 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’re not in a normal situation and won’t be for many years to come.
Universities are also expected to immerse themselves in community engagement, important in the SA context of course, but this commitment constitutes a further tax on academic and university-wide resources. Increased student intakes and support mean academic teaching loads are increasing exponentially. Academics are equally under pressure to produce more accredited research.
All this points to 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 (NSFAS) can cope with the demand for student financial support. NSFAS funding to universities stood at R2,6 billion in 2011 and is expected to rise this year to R3,6 billion. UJ’s forecast allocation for 2013 is R298 million, 8% up on 2012, but this falls well short of the current need, which we estimate to result in a shortfall of R192 million, up from R9 million in 2009. At UJ the annual average growth in NSFAS applications has been 11,8% since 2006 – from 7 894 applications in 2006 to 19 520 this year, 69% of which qualify for NSFAS funding , according to UJ’s trend analysis. The implication of this staggering growth in demand for NSFAS funding is that fewer first years can start their studies and fewer senior students can continue this year without NSFAS funding.
Last year UJ spent R45 million of its own reserves to augment NSFAS funding. This was in addition to R89 million spent on bursaries. This year, it will only allocate R20 million for NSFAS while bursary funding has increased to R107 million. Unlike universities in developed countries where shortfalls have been met by student fee increases – and the concomitant debt burdens many students now have as they leave the university – 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.
The role of SETAs should also be questioned in this regard. With the aim of developing the skills of the nation, one does wonder why the SETAs have not shown an interest in contributing substantially to the funding of poor university students. Our universities are between a rock and a hard place. As things stand, the funding model is simply unsustainable. We either grasp the nettle of fee increases, with all that entails and cap university entry or NSFAS allocations have to increase in line with 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.
Professor Ihron Rensburg is Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Johannesburg. An edited version of this article was published in the Sunday Times on 13.01.2013​

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