New ideas needed in universities

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I DO not wish to take the statement by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande’s spokesman, Malesela Maleka, out of context, but he did say “the ploy of blaming communists and Nzimande in particular for whatever problems people encounter has reached its sell by date” (Mail & Guardian, September 6-12). The question that I now wish to raise is: does that also apply to Walter Sisulu University (WSU)?

Students have been clamouring for intervention by the minister, but nothing happened until President Jacob Zuma intervened by sending minister Collins Chabane to sort out the problem.

The higher education minister was quick to react to the death of Gloria Sekwena at the University of Johannesburg last year. In the Daily Dispatch of January 11 last year, a front page headline screamed “Blade to stop varsity rushes”.

In the Sunday Times of January 22 last year, at Sekwena’s funeral, he told her two sons, “The best way you can make sure you honour your mother’s memory is by committing yourself to education. We are going to meet as a department. We have to find a way of honouring Sis Gloria’s memory.”

This contrasts sharply to his reaction to the crisis at WSU.

In reaction to a variety of responses to Sekwena’s death the minister said in the Sunday Times of January 15 last year that virtual campuses would solve the student crush. The City Press of January 22 last year said, “Odds still against black students” with the subtitle that success depended on background.

In the Daily Dispatch of January 31 last year, in an article about universities, the headline read “No space in EC universities” with the subtitle that 60000 pupils were turned away. The article about virtual campuses prompted me to give to the rectors of two of our universities in the Eastern Cape articles about the International Virtual University (UK) and the Unesco Virtual University.

I did not contact Dr Derrick Swartz at NMMU. Maybe I should have.

Rhodes University vice-chancellor Dr Saleem Badat was sceptical and Fort Hare University vice-chancellor Dr Mvuyo Tom just accepted the articles. The next thing I knew was that Jenny Glennie, director of SAIDE (South African Institute of Distance Education), phoned me and told me, “Virtual universities are not very successful”. I argued with her and told her that Nzimande had said in the Sunday Times that virtual campuses would solve the crisis. I then found out that University of Fort Hare academic Nhlanganiso Dladla was in her office and I immediately made the connection to Fort Hare and Tom. At least he followed up.

I do not understand why we are not thinking out of the box. Schools close at two o’clock in the afternoon, so do FET colleges.

Universities themselves run empty at those times. Why is it that we are not using those empty, wasted hours to make virtual universities a reality?

Perhaps we should go to the Open University at Milton Keynes in the UK to see how it uses a variety of universities to teach thousands of students. It will stop the reality that there are no places in the universities and stop us from turning away tens of thousands of students.

It will stop this very expensive exercise of sending children away from home by parents who cannot afford it, to get an education. Perhaps it will stop the National Student Financial Aid Scheme from running on empty.

Bobby Bussack, Port Elizabeth

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