South African Universities Shutdown - An Engineering Crisis


Students in South Africa, for perhaps the first time in the country’s democratic history, might not complete the academic year. A nationwide protest to change all universities in South Africa into tuition-free universities has forced the closure of campuses all over the country. Dubbed the Fees Must Fall movement, students are not only demanding tuition-free universities but also for a reformed curriculum that reflects Afrocentric values above the traditional eurocentric teachings. An unnamed student leading a protest at the University of Witwatersrand said: “We are going take over all universities. We are going to make sure that [South Africa] is at a standstill until we get free, quality, decolonized education.”

Adam Habib, the Vice Chancellor of the University of the Witwatersrand said that sixteen out of twenty-six universities were closed in the country.  Many of which, are the top-tier universities that have the highest postgraduate employment rates. He also said that the damages to university property around the country had reached approximately USD $72 million in damages. Habib, speaking to a talk radio station about his own university, said: “Thirty-six thousand students’ lives are at stake. Thirty-six thousand students want this academic program to continue, they want to conclude this academic year. Don’t destroy their futures.” Engineering students at top South African universities have expressed their frustration at the situation, wondering whether or not they would be getting back to completing their already intensive, time-sensitive degrees.

As a result, the Fees Must Fall movement could delay new engineers, doctors, and scientists from entering the workplace in 2017, widening an already sizeable skills gap in the country.The Department of Higher Education, in their latest report on Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in South Africa, indicated that only 185,375 people graduated from South Africa’s 26 universities in 2014. Out of those, 5,680 of them were engineers. Speaking to the Mail & Guardian Africa, Koos Bekker, the chairperson of Naspers, Africa’s richest company, said: “South Africa desperately needs more engineers. Engineers drive our country’s international competitiveness: fewer engineers, less job creation.”

Whether or not tertiary education institutions will continue to operate and function remains to be seen. An engineer from the University of Pretoria, who wishes to remain anonymous, said that the University of Witwatersrand would see approximately 75,000 applications from matriculants who would want to start their higher education journey next year. He adds that if the university does indeed abandon the academic year, there is a strong likelihood that those applicants will be turned away.

Therefore, this puts online distance learning institutions in a unique position. The fact that higher education teaching and training can be conducted over the internet means a student can access learning materials at any location and at any time, with no central campus to go to. It may become an attractive alternative for students. As long as campuses are closed, online distance learning and training become the most viable option for the future of higher education. Most of the students affected by the Fees Must Fall movement in South Africa have been able to access their reading materials and receive instructions via an online portal known as Blackboard Learn. However, that won’t help if they are unable to write exams due to campuses being shut down.

The Engineering Institute of Technology in association with IDC Technologies help engineers and technicians become work ready with the assistance of a dedicated e-Learning team. Students are able to get their engineering higher education qualifications completely online. They cover a wide variety of engineering disciplines:

  • Data Communications and Industrial IT
  • Industrial Automation, Instrumentation and Process Control
  • Electrical Engineering
  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Civil Engineering
  • Electronic Engineering
  • Engineering Management

The benefit for the South African student, for example, is getting a qualification that is internationally recognized, without the worry that the campus might be closed down due to protests. The Engineering Institute of Technology is recognized by the Canadian Council of Technicians and Technologies, the Accreditation Board for Engineering Education of Korea, the Engineering Council of South Africa, Engineers Australia, Engineering Council UK, Engineers Ireland, Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand and the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).

For students who may have no studying options after leaving school next year but want to pursue a career in engineering, EIT has diplomas and advanced diplomas in the aforementioned disciplines. Once an Advanced Diploma has been acquired through EIT, you can move onto the Bachelor’s Degree. From there you can also pursue your Masters in Engineering. It is now possible to gain an engineering qualification without having to physically attend classes on a campus. All you need is a computer and an internet connection.

Nonetheless, engineering students whose test weeks and examinations are under threat by the closure of campuses in South Africa are banding together on Whatsapp groups to organize study sessions, and practical sessions in hopes that they will be prepared for examinations - even if they won’t be happening.

“The engineering degree is full enough already - with the lost time. Luckily, I have the resources to work from home, but many final year students don’t have the same luxury,” said an electrical engineering student at the University of Pretoria. It is clear that engineers are using the technology they are accustomed to using in their everyday lives to further their studies and careers, away from any political interference or delaying tactic. This can only mean that flexible studying options that include online distance training could become the biggest alternative to higher education. And the institutions that offer those options could be seeing a batch of new students applying quite soon.