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High hopes for central university applications system

The tragic death in January of Gloria Sekwena, who accompanied her son Kgositsile when he tried to secure late admission to the University of Johannesburg and was killed in a stampede of desperate applicants, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for South Africa's government. From next year, a central applications system will be in place.

Behind that incident are statistics that demonstrate the desperate mismatch between the demand for and supply of higher education places, which along with a frustrating propensity of many students to apply late, has for years fuelled chaos and queues at universities at the start of each academic year.

South Africa's top five universities revealed last month that they had received more than 150,000 applications for 2013 first-year registrations, yet the reality is that only 41,200 will be successful in their bid for higher education through this channel.

Prospective students who have not yet applied to those universities will have to make alternative plans, because the institutions also stated they will not be taking late applications. Their facilities are full and there is little they can do to accommodate additional demand.

University of Pretoria media liaison officer Nicolize Mulder said the institution had received 34,000 applications for 16,000 first-year places, while University of Cape Town admissions director Carl Herman confirmed that it had received more than 25,000 undergraduate applications for 4,200 spaces.

The University of Johannesburg has categorically stated it will not take late applications, having received about 50,000 already for 13,000 first-year spaces. And while the University of Stellenbosch had planned to only accept 5,000 new students in 2013, spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen it had provisionally accepted 9,000 of 16,000 applications received.

A central applications system

Into this furore has stepped South Africa’s Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, who recently unveiled plans to better manage student admissions through a central applications system that will streamline the process and prevent the pandemonium that led to Sekwena's death. Already he has launched a major media campaign encouraging early applications.

Nzimande said the centralised system would be implemented for first-time university applications, with phase one coming into effect next year. It will assist both school-leavers seeking late university placements and those turned down by their first-choice university.

This clearinghouse phase will minimise the number of walk-in centres and manage the number of people queuing for university applications.

The higher education institutions in the province of KwaZulu-Natal have used a central applications office since 1999, and Nzimande said this initiative could be the technical and administrative model for national implementation.

Phase one will enable prospective students for 2013 enrolment to apply centrally, while the final phase, aimed at improving the management of last-minute applications, will be completed by 2014.

The fully operational system will allow students to apply for admissions, financial aid and accommodation through a single application. They will pay a single application fee and check on progress in one place.

Currently, prospective students to higher education institutions in provinces other than KwaZulu-Natal pay application fees to each university at which they hope for acceptance, and although this will still apply next year, Nzimande said that once developed the centralised system would "facilitate better management of student enrolments within higher education and training institutions at a standardised cost".

Students will also access a call centre and website for information on university availability. School-leavers whose applications have been unsuccessful will be redirected through the clearinghouse to other universities, further education and training colleges and sector education and training authority positions.

Nzimande is neither reinventing a wheel nor proposing something radical. Ireland introduced a central admissions system in 1976, processing the first students through the initiative two years later, and the United Kingdom has long had a university central applications system.

Response from universities

However, Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the body representing vice-chancellors of the country's 23 public higher education institutions, has not wholly embraced the proposed new system.

While supporting it in principle, HESA believes there must be certain conditions attached. Primarily, universities must ‘own’ the admissions system to ensure it does not degenerate into a body sending students to universities they have not chosen or admitting students who do not meet universities' admissions criteria.

"We believe such a system, if it works effectively, can be a powerful mechanism to facilitate the application processes of first-year students to our institutions," HESA said in a statement.

The benefits would be that students pay a single application fee and have adequate information about place availability via a central point, and that the central admissions processes would prevent last-minute rushes at the beginning of the academic year.

However, the vice-chancellors said, there were several issues to be tackled if the central applications service was to achieve its goals effectively, functioning within South Africa’s constitutional principles of academic freedom and freedom of association and adhering to university autonomy.

Ownership is the key issue.

The central applications system, HESA said, “should be established and should function in a way that all universities can willingly participate in these processes. [It] cannot be established or operated unilaterally by any role player [and] may not encroach on universities' admission criteria or 'place' students despite their own choices.”

HESA called on Nzimande to ensure that the system operates in a financially sustainable fashion through a single application fee and-or via financial support from the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Establishing the system also required "realistic timeframes" to avoid confusion and unrealistic expectations among prospective students – and that demanded a series of pilot projects ahead of launching the system nationally.

That reaches into the heart of HESA's concerns, because Nzimande has indicated the system will start in earnest from 2014. The vice-chancellors believe the minister has a vital role to play in establishing a central applications system, but by initiating discussions and providing initial funding to set up the technology, not setting it up.

In a nutshell, HESA "looked forward" to working closely with Nzimande and the department in meeting these conditions. But the vice-chancellors’ comments clash with Nzimande’s confidence in telling local media there was “buy-in from all 23 universities".

There will no doubt be clashes around the new system, and teething problems when it kicks off. But all in higher education agree on the need to solve the perennial pandemonium of university admissions – and to avoid another tragedy such as that which befell Gloria Sekwena.
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