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SAHRC adds its voice to Unisa issue of excluding 20 000 first-year students

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It will this week ask the court to allow it to partake in proceedings as a friend of the court

Unisa’s main campus, Muckleneuk, in Pretoria. Picture: Jacques Naude/African News Agency (ANA)

HIGHER Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande’s exclusion of more than 20,000 potential first-year students from studying at Unisa is a direct contradiction to the transformation objectives in the higher education sector. It entrenches the existing inequalities which still exist in institutions of higher learning.

This is according to the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), which wants to add its voice to the EFF student wing’s application in which it is taking on the minister over the exclusion of more than 20,000 potential first-year students from studying at Unisa.

The SAHRC will this week ask the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, to allow it to partake in the proceedings as a friend of the court. It intends on arguing that the minister’s decision to exclude thousands of first-years from enrolling later this month for the academic year, is simply irrational.

The EFF wants the decision to reduce the first-year intake at Unisa by 20,000, overturned. It feels Nzimande cannot dictate how many students Unisa should accept.

In the latest development, the SAHRC last week filed an application in support of the EFF’s bid

Jonas Sibanyoni, a commissioner at the SAHRC, said instead of easing the burden on the poor black children and enforcing the transformation requirements of Unisa, the minister directs the university to ingrain the challenges already facing disadvantaged students.

“The minister’s decision is a direct contradiction to the transformation objectives in the Higher Education sector as it entrenches the existing inequalities, patterns of systematic exclusion, marginalisation and subtle forms of discrimination which still exist at institutions of higher learning,” Sibanyoni said in an affidavit.

The SAHRC earlier initiated a public national hearing to investigate the issues regarding racial integration and transformation at South Africa’s public universities to determine whether institutions of higher learning such as Unisa have sufficiently transformed in the past 20 years.

Sibanyoni said the investigation reflected that black students still suffer inequalities, patterns of systematic exclusion and marginalisation.

“The minister’s decision automatically denies the poor black students access to higher education on the assumption that they will automatically require financial assistance and burden the state,” he said.

One of the recommendations made by the commission is that the Department of Higher Education and National Treasury must review funding models to accommodate students who find themselves in a disadvantageous position due to lack of finances.

Sibanyoni said the minister’s decision was a clear indication that he failed to consider the recommendations.

“In fact, he has done the exact opposite of what the commission recommended … Given the minister’s lack of intention to implement the recommendations which take into account financial assistance which must be provided to disadvantaged students for achievement of transformation, the commission is obliged to support the EFF’s application.”

Sibanyoni said the department must play a leading role in the transformation of institutions of higher learning and should exercise its powers in terms of the Higher Education Act to hold universities accountable for their lack of transformation.

“The minister in his directive in December, does not outline what alternative measures have been put in place for the 20,000 candidates that will be left without access to tertiary institutions.”

Sibanyoni added that the minister and Unisa’s claims about the lack of affordability of meeting the demands, are made in the vaguest possible terms.

He said they were also mum about whether they were unable to reallocate resources within Unisa’s available budget.

Unisa spokesperson Tommy Huma earlier said the Department of Higher Education and Training had approved that the enrolment target for 2021 should be 376,000.

Huma said the university was required to scale back on first-time students this year, particularly those studying for higher certificates as that “generally” and “adversely” affects the technical, vocational and training colleges’ enrolments.

“However, the number of students transferring from other institutions and returning students are unaffected by the enrolment targets,” he said.

Huma would not further comment on the case at the weekend, as he said the issues were “sub judice”.