Market forces dictating

April 16, 1999

Students are moving from historically black to white universities in South Africa, Karen MacGregor writes.

When apartheid's walls came tumbling down, the market quickly replaced them in South African higher education. Previously student choice was ethnically constrained: now factors such as price, service, quality and product are deciding where young people study.

The result, in just a few years, has been a dramatic movement of students from historically black to white universities, and from universities in general to technikons and private institutions.

Last year there were 30,000 fewer state university students than in 1997. While numbers at most historically white universities (HWUs) are still rising, formerly black universities (HBUs) are suffering a drastic decline and there are fears that some may not survive.

The University of the North West has lost 5,000 students this year, the North (Turfloop) 4,000, and Fort Hare 3,000.

Meanwhile, technikon enrolments are steadily rising, and private institutions report growth of 25 to 30 per cent this year (albeit from a fairly small base). There are now about 20,000 full-time private higher education students and hundreds of thousands on part-time and short courses.

The government is happy. With more students in technikons, there will be more graduates with vocationally oriented diplomas, which South Africa needs. With growing numbers of students in private institutions (which are not subsidised), the state pays less.

Students and parents, too, are happy. Bright kids get to choose from a wide range of institutions, courses and qualifications.

More parents feel they can sleep at night free from fears that their children will be jobless or exposed to campus protests. Finance is a restriction, but fairly well-off parents remain willing to fork out for their children's futures, and the tertiary education fund (Tefsa) will provide bursaries and loans to about 70,000 students this year.

But there are problems and they are to do with quality, control and limited state resources.

Higher education has transformed so rapidly that nobody knows how many private institutions there are, how many students they have, what courses they are on, or whether their qualifications are sound.

Many private colleges are good, but some are bad. There are also question marks over the distance-learning University of South Africa (Unisa) degrees some offer: Unisa repressed a recent report into its degrees, allegedly because of the severe criticisms it contained.

The government is tackling such problems by forcing private institutions to register with the department of education, and have their courses and qualifications evaluated. State institutions, too, are having to put quality assurance procedures in place.

But it will be many, many years before South Africans will really know that they are paying for quality education and internationally accepted qualifications at all institutions.

A decline in the number of HBU students has profound financial implications. A major slice of state funding is based on student numbers: declining enrolment means less funding for the very universities that have few resources or access to private funding.

Apartheid also created too many universities - some in close proximity - leading to systemic inefficiencies and duplications. This, with the state's expensive obligation to fund institutions with few students and of sometimes dubious quality, is a drain on limited resources.

Finally, in a developing country with a skewed history and skills shortages in several key areas, the market alone is probably unable to ensure all the graduates the economy needs. There are very strong market forces operating at the moment, primarily affordability, skills orientation, job prospects, and perceptions of safety and quality.

Certainly, a depressed economy and unemployment are eroding potential student numbers, while university clampdowns on non-paying students are contributing significantly to declining numbers.

But perhaps the biggest factor influencing student flows is the job market which, according to the Human Sciences Research Council, absorbs only 56 per cent of graduates from HWUs and 25 per cent from HBUs.

People are relating study directly to job prospects, with students enrolling on skills courses in technikons or private colleges, or entering the job market directly after school out of fear of not finding a job in future.

Private institutions add safety and small class sizes as factors. There is a clear perception that state universities are disruptive, unsafe and of dubious quality. Universities vigorously deny that this is based in reality. A crucial question is what they intend to do about declining numbers and negative perceptions.

HWUs are relatively well off. They are attracting students - some from HBUs - and have the resources and reputations to raise private funding which, with fees, contributes to more than half their income. They argue, convincingly, that quality remains high, and that a degree still carries international currency and job prospects.

The picture at HBUs is far worse. At a meeting of HBU heads recently, vice-chancellors admitted fighting for their very survival, and called for a special HBU fund and greater state support.

They are likely to get the latter, not the former - leaving the government, some time in the not too distant future, on a tightrope between political expediency and practicality.

Karen MacGregor is correspondent for The THES in South Africa.

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