Unisa announced that its academic year would start in March and that it would decrease the number of first-time entering students after it received a notice from Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)
Unisa announced that its academic year would start in March and that it would decrease the number of first-time entering students after it received a notice from Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. Picture: Bongani Mbatha/African News Agency (ANA)

Nzimande tells Unisa to reduce new entrants by 20 000

By Thami Magubane Time of article published Jan 6, 2021

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Durban - Thousands of students hoping to enrol to study at the University of South Africa (Unisa) will not be able to realise their dreams after the university council was instructed by the Minister of Higher Education, Dr Blade Nzimande, to reduce the number of new entrants by 20 000.

The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation ordered the university to reduce the intake of first time entering (FTEN) students for 2021 because it had over enrolled by the same number last year.

The department said such action has to be taken to protect the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) which funds most students and is already under pressure.

The directive, contained in a strongly worded letter to the university council, has angered the Student Representative Council (SRC) which said the move would deny many black students the opportunity to get a university qualification.

In a letter dated December 28, 2020, Nzimande outlines the concerns his office has about Unisa, including over enrolment and that Unisa had planned to start its academic year this week, something Nzimande describes as “out of sync with the rest of the sector”.

Department spokesperson Ismael Mnisi confirmed that Nzimande had written to the university to raise his concerns. Nzimande’s letter said the approved enrolment planning target for first time entering (FTEN) students in 2020 for Unisa was 57 703.

“It has come to my attention that the university enrolled 77 840 FTEN students in 2020. This is an over enrolment of 20 137 students, 35% over the approved target. It will have a significant impact on the sustainability of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas),” said Nzimande.

Nzimande said Unisa had been warned about this before. “When Unisa had over enrolled in 2018, the university was warned that it must adhere to its enrolment planning target and that it would be penalised in the 2021 financial year for the over enrolment.

“Despite the penalty imposed, Unisa has, once again, not heeded the request to ensure that it does not over enrol FTEN students.”

It was not immediately clear what kind of penalty was imposed.

“In light of the current fiscal constraints and the impact that over enrolment has on the whole sector, I am now issuing a directive to Unisa to reduce its 2021 FTEN by 20 000 to accommodate the over enrolment in 2020 and the impact this will have on NSFAS over the next year,” he said.

This reduction would mean an FTEN intake of only 37 857 students in 2021 instead of the 57 857 envisaged by the institution.

Nzimande also warned the university against starting its academic year this week. Unisa had intended to commence its academic year on January 5, for returning and first year students.

“This intention was totally out of sync with the sector as a whole. All other institutions intend commencing their registration in March or April, with the grade 12 results only due out on February 23 and with many universities only completing their academic year in January, February and March.”

He said these decisions could have a detrimental effect on first year students and those that might want to transfer across. He directed Unisa to delay the commencement of the 2021 academic year for first time entries until March 2021.

Amu Ngwenya, Unisa’s SRC general secretary, said they had seen the letter. “We are going to meet and discuss the issue and formulate a proper response, but we have seen the letter.”

He said the letter shows that Nzimande was failing to understand the role played by Unisa in resolving the space constraints at many of the universities in the country.

“Unisa is a distance learning institution. It can accept many students because there is no issue of space constraints like in many other universities. The number of students it has should not be the issue. It is a solution to the current problem, and will be a solution for the future,” said Ngwenya.

Unisa, in a statement, said its council had met on January 2 and took resolutions that were in line with the minister’s directive.

It agreed to reduce the number of first-time entering students in 2021, “This resolution is meant to ensure the financial sustainability of the University and the sector, and to enable the university to effectively support the students.

The institution also said the 2021 academic year would commence in March 2021. “The intention is to begin the academic year in March to ensure alignment with the whole HE sector which will commence with the first-year registrations in March or April 2021,” the statement said.

In order to ensure that the students were not unduly disadvantaged, registration of returning students would proceed during the next two months.

“This decision was taken to ensure that the university does not have a backlog when the academic year starts in March. The university will further engage on these matters with the students. Where necessary, communication will be done directly with the affected students.”

The Mercury

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