South Africa

Minister seeks legal advice on Unisa enrolments

Minister seeks legal advice on Unisa enrolments

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande’s lawyers are preparing a legal opinion in response to a recent high court judgment that set aside his directive to Unisa to reduce its intake of first-time entering students (FTEN) this year by 20,000.

The North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria ruled on March 11 that the minister’s decision was unlawful.

The department's acting deputy director-general for the university education programme, Thandi Lewin, told parliament on Friday that Nzimande’s two legal counsels were deciding on “the way forward” and whether there were grounds for a successful case should the minister opt for an appeal.

Nzimande received a copy of the full judgment on April 6.

The EFF Student Command (EFFSC) and the Black Law Students Council hauled Nzimande and Unisa to court earlier this year on an urgent basis asking it to review and set aside his decision as it was going to deprive students of their constitutional right to education.

Unisa, which is the largest open distance-learning institution in Africa, enrols nearly a third of all SA students.

The department and Unisa appeared before parliament's higher education portfolio committee after it summoned Unisa to explain why it failed to comply with its enrolment planning target.

Unisa’s enrolled 82,487 FTEN students despite its target being 57,703.

Lewin gave an outline of its enrolment planning targets as well as a timeline of discussions and communications with Unisa.

She said that the department met Unisa’s management in October 2019 for the second time to discuss key concerns around the institution’s projections on teacher education enrolments as well as its over-enrolment of students in 2018.

“The university was requested to reduce its enrolments in teacher education, reduce its overall headcount enrolments and shift the focus to the success of the students already in the system.”

Unisa was also advised to adhere to the approved enrolment targets.

Lewin said that a document outlining its 2020 to 2025 enrolment planning target was sent to Unisa in January 2020 and that confirmation of acceptance of the targets was not received from Unisa’s chair of council.

She said that Unisa informed them in February 2020 that they had already “over-enrolled on their FTEN numbers”.

Her department requested Unisa in October 2020 to attend a meeting to discuss its over-enrolment of students and in December 2020 Nzimande wrote to Unisa informing it that its FTEN numbers for 2021 would be reduced by 20,000.

Unisa’s vice-chancellor, Prof Puleng LenkaBula, told parliament that one of the reasons for over-enrolling FTEN students was because there was a high demand for the higher certificate.

“A considerable number of NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] FTEN recipients only received confirmation late into the registration process.”

She also blamed its over-enrolment on “the student culture of not adhering to the 10-day acceptance period due to access to communication channels, e-mail access, and smartphone access”.

“A culture of non-acknowledgment exacerbates the challenges of managing the FTEN cohort,” she said in her presentation.

LenkaBula said that they had engaged with the two responsible committees to request them to take corrective measures on over-enrolments.

Among the corrective measures that Unisa had adopted was monitoring enrolment targets on a weekly basis.

She said that one of the things government could consider was subsidising students up to what is affordable for the state and Unisa being allowed to increase numbers up to its carrying capacity and for the state not to fund the extra capacity.