SA urgently needs more varsities amid growing demand for places

Students gather outside the University of Johannesburg campus to register for the 2018 academic year. The competition for places has been getting stiffer. /Veli Nhlapo
Students gather outside the University of Johannesburg campus to register for the 2018 academic year. The competition for places has been getting stiffer. /Veli Nhlapo

There is a looming crisis at universities as students begin the 2018 academic year. In the spirit of the festive season, President Jacob Zuma delivered the gift of free education to "poor and working class" students.

His announcement was mum on modalities. This has left universities and other higher learning institutions scrambling to determine how the government's decision is to be implemented.

The EFF has climbed onto the bandwagon, calling on students, even those who did not submit an application for 2018, to show up at universities to enrol for tuition.

In itself, the announcement represents a victory for the student movement which has agitated for fee-free education since 2015.

Although the government has opted not to extend this benefit to all, as the students were demanding, it is a lifeline to millions of young people who have faced exclusion from higher learning on account of their inability to pay.

But this does not necessarily mean that the problems at higher education have been solved. On the contrary, this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back.

The focus on the cost has distracted from the serious challenge of the limited supply of places at universities amid a growing demand.

Prospective students are turned away annually because universities just don't have the capacity to accommodate every young person who qualifies for placement. The competition for places has become stiffer, leaving even those students who are otherwise competent to enter universities disappointed and stranded.

The Department of Higher Education and Training has been touting the technical and vocational education and training colleges as a viable alternative, but the truth is, it has not been able to convince broader society, including employers, of their credibility and competency.

Student activists need to face the fact that the scrapping of fees will not solve the problem of access.

Young people are clamouring to enter previously white universities because of their superior facilities and the perception that they provide superior tuition.

It is a marvel that, after two decades of democracy, the belief is that the former white institutions are better than the former black ones.

This belief is pervasive among black students and their parents who make up the majority of students.

The former black universities have serious challenges, particularly with poor infrastructure, due mostly to the deprivation they suffered during apartheid, where the state invested a fraction in them compared to the formerly white institutions.

These have become the only option for poorer students, having been abandoned by socially mobile middle-class and affluent blacks.

While former white universities benefit from endowments and alumni contributions, former black universities struggle to make ends meet with government grants. But improving the lot of former black universities will not solve the problem.

Frankly, South Africa needs more universities. As a matter of urgency.

Activists - students and academics alike - have called for the decolonisation of universities. They have decried the culture that represents Eurocentric perspectives and voices as loftier than African ones. The approach thus far has been to reform from within. That is a noble cause. They need to embrace the values of a democratic SA, at the centre of which is inclusiveness. However, this is not enough.

A black government and the black middle and affluent classes must have a vision and an urge to build their own institutions and leave a new and better legacy. They must overcome this constant craving to enjoy the fruits of foundations laid by the old guard. Supporting and boosting the fledgling Sol Plaatje University and the University of Mpumalanga is a good start. Establishing even more is the way of the future.