Mother dies in university stampede

The mother of a prospective student was trampled to death and 22 people were injured, two critically, in a stampede for limited slots at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) on Tuesday. The tragedy highlights flaws in the South African higher education admissions process and the desperation of school-leavers to secure access to a tertiary qualification.

Gloria Sekwena, 47, a psychiatric nurse who had been based in the UK since 2001, died in the arms of her son, prospective student Kgositsile Sekwena. Overwhelmed by grief, he told the Sowetan newspaper that the stampede began when somebody among a crowd of people queuing up outside the university gates jumped the fence. His mother was trampled to death.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, who last year described the chaotic scenes outside UJ as a "wonderful problem" indicative of a thirst for learning, responded immediately that the department would move to a central application process to alleviate the annual last-minute rush, as well as possibly outlawing walk-in applicants.

More difficult to address at a stroke are the statistical realities: universities and diploma colleges have only 180,000 places for first-year students while last month some 250,000 South Africans passed their final high school exams at a level that qualified them for admission to tertiary institutions.

UJ received 85,000 applications for 11,000 first-year slots and believes that its particularly high application rate is because the university offers study opportunities not available at other Gauteng province institutions. It is centrally located and as a so-called 'comprehensive' university offers vocational diplomas as well as traditional degrees.

Spokesperson Herman Esterhuisen told the Mail & Guardian that about 6,000 "desperate" late applicants started queuing on Monday in a fight for about 800 remaining spots. Despite communications about admission requirements, most of the late applicants did not meet these but were "trying their luck anyway", Esterhuisen said.

All South Africa's universities experience a surge of late applicants following the release of school-leaving examination results, which gives an unexpected chance of university admission to some who had not applied.

For instance, about 1,500 late applicants per day show up at the various campuses of the Tshwane University of Technology. By contrast, there is less pressure from late applicants at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), a short distance from UJ.

Wits offers only traditional degrees, said the university's registrar Kirti Menon. "We only consider students with admission for degree purposes, not diploma or higher certificate entrance," she told the Mail & Guardian.

Wits had about 1,000 prospective students a day enquiring about late applications, Menon told the newspaper. "They often apply late because of lack of career counselling, doubts about their performance or financial considerations."

Graeme Bloch, a visiting adjunct professor at Wits, told the Voice of America in an interview that the stampede was indicative of the desperation to build a future among South Africa's youth.

"It is all about young people who want opportunities. And quite honestly it is about a school system that is slowly improving, and as a result young people think that getting through the school system is going to get them somewhere, and then when they find that they have to stand in queues at the University of Johannesburg, they stampede...I think it expresses that desperation that we are seeing 
from young people,' Bloch said.

Another aspect of the problem is the generally poor reputation of further education and training (FET) colleges. While there are 50,000 unfilled vacancies at these, prospective students appear sceptical about the quality of the diplomas on offer.

Seamus Needham, research planning manager at the University of the Western Cape's FET Institute, said in the Mail & Guardian: "College is definitely a second choice option for students despite the fact that it provides very real employment opportunities."

Yet another contributing factor is lack of career guidance at disadvantaged schools and lack of information about how to apply to university and application deadlines.

In response to the stampede Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the vice-chancellors' association, announced that it would examine the experiences of its 23 member institutions relating to admissions in 2012 with a view to "analysing trends, distilling lessons and facilitating mechanisms through which promising practices could be shared across the university system".

The vice-chancellors said in a statement that the UJ incident, however, should be understood in its proper historical context and the phenomenon of too many eligible students for available university places. "This growing demand has severely stretched the current capacities of our public universities."

HESA was of the view that there was an "urgent need for the development of a coordinated, flexible and differentiated post-school education and training system consisting of institutions such as teacher education colleges, FET colleges, agricultural colleges, nursing colleges and universities".

Meanwhile, government spokesperson Jimmy Manyi sent condolences to the affected families of the "unfortunate incident" at UJ, which was to be fully investigated.

According to The Telegraph, staff from UJ travelled to Krugersdorp, a town west of Johannesburg, to meet Gloria Sekwena's relatives, along with Nzimande. A spokesman for UJ said Kgositsile Sekwena has been offered a bursary to study at the university.