17 February 2004

Like most first year students at the University of South Africa (Unisa), Sanelisiwe Sambo of Limpopo is looking forward to starting her studies. But, unlike every other student, she is only 14 years old, and is the youngest person to have registered as a student at Unisa. Sambo, who attended school in Hazyview, always wanted to be an accountant and has now registered for a Bachelor of Commerce. She managed to become a university student at 14 by being allowed to bypass several grades at school.

Thousands of school-leavers have entered the world of campus life, with the dangers of sex, drugs, alcohol and HIV. As part of their initiation this year, university, technikon and college students throughout South Africa have been able to take part in an interactive computer game, which intends to curb HIV infection among students. The danger is that even if students know about the risks of contracting HIV/AIDS through unprotected sex, consuming alcohol or drugs could reduce their inhibitions and cloud their judgement. The interactive computer game is called Your Moves - to be a player, or a life-stayer, introduced by the Higher Education Aids Initiative's Programme HEAID.

The merger of tertiary institutions has already claimed victims: some students registered in 2002 with Vista University Distance Education Campus (Vudec), have been left in the lurch. Several have been refused registration, their courses cancelled and their lecturers' contracts not renewed, due to administrative bungling. Vudec merged with the University of South Africa and Technikon SA to form Unisa, following Education Minister Kader Asmals' plans to rationalise higher education.

Ever since Ajna Maharaj saw the long queues of people awaiting medical care outside rural clinics, she dreamt of taking up medicine. But despite an 87,5% aggregate, she was refused a place at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's (UKZN) medical school. What made her rejection even more difficult to bear is that a black school friend, who had a 75% aggregate, was accepted. Ajna claims she was told a black applicant could claim a place at medical school with a 76% aggregate, while the requirement for a "non-black" was 91%.

A recent report has challenged the conventional wisdom that Africa's educated youth often find themselves without a job after completing their studies. The study, conducted by the University of Sussex in Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe, gathered information from over 5 000 participants who had graduated from schools and universities between 1980 and 1995. The results showed that employment outcomes were considerably better than expected. Researchers noted that although governments and parents continued to invest heavily in university and secondary education, it was widely believed that young people were increasingly unable to find appropriate employment, which effectively utilised the knowledge and skills acquired at tertiary institutions.

In an attempt to stimulate scientific research and boost German universities' international scientific reputations, Germany's federal government has announced a competition that will result in five institutions being named as "top universities" and receiving €250-million over five years. Universities wishing to compete must submit detailed research concepts. The five winners will be selected by a jury of national and international scientific experts. Minister for Education and Research, Edelgard Bulmahn, proposed that Germany should develop a system of "elite universities", similar to that of the United States.

Independent Online, AllAfrica, The Scientist

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