South Africa: Death in Stampede for University Admission

As thousands of students and their anxious parents rushed through the gates of the University of Johannesburg early on Tuesday morning, one woman, the mother of a prospective student, was trampled to death and several others were badly injured in a frantic stampede.

Lydia Polgreen at the New York Times reports on South Africa’s overstretched higher education system, concluding that the stampede embodied the broad crisis in South Africa’s inability to accommodate all of the students seeking seats at the country’s public universities.

The university’s vice chancellor, Ihron Rensburg, tried to explain how everything deteriorated:

“When we opened the gates this morning, we had this unfortunate, this very sad situation, where there was simply an unbearable crush on the front entrance.”

The country’s public universities are forced to turn away more than half of their applicants each year, leaving few options for most high school graduates.

University officials say that about 85,000 students had applied for the roughly 11,000 seats available at the university. The students that caused the crush were competing for the last few available seats.

The A.N.C.’s Youth League released a statement. In it they said:

“The inability to institutions of higher learning to admit the entirety of learners who are eligible for higher education is reaching a crisis level.”

South Africa’s education minister, Blade Nzimande, admitted that currently South Africa cannot cater to everyone who wants to attend a university, but it is something that the government would like to work on.

Until then, however, hopeful students should apply for diploma programs at technical schools, known as Further Education and Training, or F.E.T. colleges, instead.

“We need to change the perception that universities are the only way to go to succeed in life,” Mr. Nzimande said.

“At the moment, we are sitting with 50,000 vacancies at F.E.T. colleges with diploma programs students can follow.”

But many don’t see the value of these diplomas.

“Companies don’t hire us with an F.E.T. diploma,” said Julius Mandlazi, a 22-year-old student.

Mandlazi  failed to get a place at the University of Johannesburg. He attended a training college to earn a diploma like the F.E.T. but has failed to find a good job with that qualification.