SOUTH AFRICA: Wanted: 100,000 more students

To achieve a target of one in five young people in higher education, South Africa is to expand its university system and attract an extra 100,000 students. The plan is to increase student numbers from the current 740,000 and to achieve a 20% participation rate by 2015.

The announcement by Education Minister Naledi Pandor indicates a reversal of an earlier government intention to cap students numbers following years of higher education expansion.

Although student numbers doubled in a dozen years of democracy, it appears the urgent need to tackle South Africa’s skills shortage has trumped the strain that an expanding university population was placing on public funding. Sustained economic growth of 5% a year is sufficiently swelling state coffers to enable further expansion.

After a meeting of the presidential working group on higher education, a regular round-table between President Thabo Mbeki, Pandor and academic leaders, the Education Minister said the current number of universities would not be able to cope with an additional 100,000 students.

So the expansion could include building new universities. But it is doubtful this would be possible in time to achieve a first target of 820,000 students by 2010.

“The reality that confronts us is that if we want to have at least a 20% participation rate by 2015, we would not be able to meet that target,” Pandor told reporters.

“The government will have to address the resourcing of the system we have, the number of institutions and the type of institutions, and exactly what we do with them, so that we achieve success in higher education.”

Pandor would not commit the government to capping tuition fees, in response to calls by students for a regulatory fee framework. The key issue was to raise the state subsidy of higher education to relieve universities of the financial pressures that lead to fee hikes, she added.

Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the association of university vice-chancellors, also reached agreement at the meeting with Mbeki for a task team to explore the feasibility of introducing four-year undergraduate degrees.

Many professional degrees, such as engineering and law, are already four years or longer but general degrees such as the BA, BSc and BCom, take three years – in theory. In practice, high failure rates mean that many students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds and dysfunctional schools, take four years or longer to complete them, or drop out.

The idea appears to be that a general degree, structured to take four years instead of three, would help improve the performance of bright students who are under-prepared for university-level study.

HESA president and University of South Africa vice-chancellor, Dr Barney Pityana, explained that while four-year degrees would raise costs, they would also save money if more students were able to complete their degrees. Currently more than half the students do not graduate.

Another means of improving student performance and graduate output, so that South Africa can raise graduation rates along with student numbers, is by strengthening the link between school and higher education systems.

In early November, the Education Department and HESA agreed to work together on improving articulation between schools and universities, including by supporting pupils to make optimal subject and career choices.