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THE stampede to register late at the Auckland Park campus of the University of Johannesburg (UJ), which led to the tragic death of a prospective student’s mother, demonstrates that SA’s higher education policy has strategically failed in providing access to tertiary studies and employment opportunities.
There has been much speculation about the cause(s) of the stampede.
In terms of access, a Sunday newspaper has revealed that 658 142 students applied for only 162 929 available university placements across the country. A mere two days after the tragedy – which saw blame being shifted backwards and forwards from UJ administration/management to the police to the Department of Education – Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande released the new green paper on education.
In terms of the green paper, at least 1.5 million university students should be registered in SA by 2030. Education experts have stated that this would require the opening of six more universities to handle the increased intake. In his statement, Nzimande refers to the “appalling waste of human potential” with three million youth neither receiving further education nor employed.
The education green paper places emphasis on strengthening and expanding the further education and training colleges (FETs), improving the colleges and making them more attractive to students.
For Glora Sekwena’s family, the recommendations contained in the green paper are too little, too late. The SA government has been working on the transformation of higher education since 1994, and has appeared to move backwards in some senses. One of the failings has been an apparent lack of commitment to improving access to universities for poor rural and urban black students.
Apartheid, although clearly leaving a destructive legacy in education, cannot be used as a blanket excuse for the desperate situation that led to the death of a parent at the gates of UJ. Valuable lessons can be learned from the US on broadening access to education for the benefit of black students.
When blacks were freed in the US, the Freedmen’s Bureau was established on March 3, 1865. One of the responsibilities of this bureau was to co-ordinate educational activities for recently freed slaves (the “freedmen”).
As a result of putting a structure in place to redress the past discriminatory educational practices of the US government, one of the lasting achievements of the bureau is its accomplishments in the arena of access to education.
This is significant because no universal, state-supported public education system existed in the south during antebellum. The Freedmen had a strong desire to learn, just as the thousands of South Africans who lined up to gain admissions to the University of Johannesburg.
As the Freedmen worked to build schools and provide educational opportunities for all former slaves, the desire to overcome the ravages of slavery remained strong in the face of southern resistance to blacks receiving an education. Although the Freedmen’s Bureau dissolved, it lives on in the US through its legacy of historically black colleges and universities. One of the best-known historically black colleges and universities, a progenitor of the Freedmen’s Bureau, is Howard University.
The challenges the former slaves faced are similar to many of the challenges black South Africans face in regards to non-existent opportunities for employment and education. Just as black South Africans faced apartheid, US blacks faced Jim Crow after the dissolution of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Unlike black South Africans, US blacks benefited from the establishment of historically black colleges and universities.
There are a few historically disadvantaged universities in SA, but there are not enough and they are not receiving the necessary support to function optimally.
Many of the historically black colleges and universities in the US have open admissions and provide remedial education to students not fully prepared to attend college as a result of poor schooling.
There are still 105 historically black colleges and universities in existence today and these institutions graduate the most African- American scientists, lawyers, and business leaders, and so on. There is no doubt that historically black colleges and universities have their challenges, but they benefit from US government support through the White House historically black colleges and universities initiative, which supports higher education at these predominately African-American institutions and makes available millions of dollars to these institutions to strengthen education.
Rather than proactively supporting historically disadvantaged universities in SA, the government, in an attempt to hasten tertiary education transformation, actually elected to close the largest historically disadvantaged universities in the country in 2003.
Vista University, established in 1981 by the apartheid government to ensure that black South Africans seeking tertiary education would be accommodated in the townships rather than on campuses reserved for other population groups, was “unbundled” as a result of a decision by then Minister of Education Kader Asmal to integrate these “township students” into the historically white and advantaged institutions.
Vista had campuses in Bloemfontein, Daveyton (East Rand), Mamelodi, Port Elizabeth, Sebokeng, Soweto and Welkom. The administrative head office and the distance education campus were located in Pretoria. Vista University’s Distance Education Campus (Vudec) allowed students to study full or part-time through correspondence.
So it was that the largest African university in SA, with 20 000 historically disadvantaged students, was designated to be an unequal party in the merger process.
As Bohler-Muller wrote in 2003: “We are losing something of value when we act upon premises of white superiority and black inferiority. Age-old prejudices and stereotypes thus remain and nothing new is created that could contribute much towards the Africanisation of higher education in SA”.
As was predicted, the closure of Vista University did not pave the way to the more rapid transformation of the higher education system in SA. As happened with the reunification of Germany at the end of the 1980s, when tertiary institutions in East Germany were incorporated into the West German system, something of value was lost that has not been regained. One of the aspects of this transformation was the merging of East and West German tertiary institutions, as with the merging of UJ and the Soweto and East Rand campuses of Vista University. It was not a transformation as much as one powerful system incorporating and “absorbing” the other, which did not make for sustainable change.
The predominant reason for university mergers in Germany and SA was the perceived inferiority or the “other” traditions of higher learning and the unquestioned and uncritical endorsement of the status quo.
Asmal’s insistence on the merging of historically disadvantaged institutions and historically privileged former white universities could be interpreted as being based on an inherent belief in the historically inferior status and standards of black higher education institutions. We submit that this is where the crux of the problem lies: rather than closing the doors of a university that was providing access to the poorest black students in SA, the post-apartheid government should have invested in strengthening these already available resources.
The UJ, where this tragedy played out, came into existence on January 1, 2005, as the result of a merger between the Technikon Witwatersrand and the Rand Afrikaans University (RAU). Before the merger, the Daveyton and Soweto campuses of the former Vista University had been incorporated into RAU. It could be argued that the continued existence of Vista University could have prevented the desperate situation that arose.
Although it is recognised that an achievement gap exists between blacks and whites in the US, blacks are fortunate enough not to have those charged with creating educational access discouraging university attendance. It is not ideal for a minister of higher education to state that a university degree is not for everyone and or that a university education is not the only way to become successful in life. In fact, this position speaks of the fact that the SA government does not have an adequate plan to educate the masses of students thirsting for education, other than trying to save the failing system of Fets.
Finally, SA does not have a community college system. Many US students who are unprepared for university attend community colleges for the first two years. Many transfer to universities after completing the two years and others opt for an associate degree in some field where good jobs exist.
The community colleges in the US work closely with accrediting bodies and universities to ensure that the courses they offer their students meet university standards for those interested in transferring to those institutions. This also removes pressure from the historically black colleges and universities that cannot afford to offer their own developmental programmes. Community colleges are picking up the mantle in offering developmental education in the US and the White House supports them.
The SA education system would no doubt benefit from a robust community college system, and a minister of education and government with a vision for education that does not encourage mediocrity.
n Dr Narnia Bohler-Muller is a Director of Social Sciences Research at Africa Institute of SA (formerly a professor of law and member of Council at Vista University and Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University). Dr Byron Eugene Price is associate professor, Department of Political Science, Texas Southern University, Houston, US.
UC Berkeley subsidizes foreign student tuition in the guise of diversity while instate student tuitionfees are doubled. UCB Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau displaces Californians qualified for public UCB with a $50,600 payment from foreign students. UC Berkeley is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 foreign students and displaces qualified instate Californians (When depreciation of assets funded by Californians are in foreign and out of state tuition calculations, out of state and foreign tuition is more than $100,000 + and does NOT subsidize instate tuition). Like Coaches, Chancellors Who Do Not Measure Up Must Go: remove Birgeneau. More recently, Chancellor Birgeneau’s campus police deployed violent baton jabs on students protesting Birgeneau’s tuition increases. The sky will not fall when Birgeneau and his $450,000 salary are ousted. Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents firstname.lastname@example.org
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