Our first born-free varsity

2014-03-09 14:00

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The problem with starting a South African university from scratch, according to Professor Ramaranka Mogotlane, is that all the people who’ve done it before are dead.

Mogotlane, the University of Mpumalanga’s management chairperson and head of academics, laughs heartily.

The trained surgeon and former Medunsa principal says establishing democratic South Africa’s first new university – not the product of a merger – is far from plain sailing.

“It’s a hell of a lot of work that is keeping us awake for days on end. We’re lurching from problem to problem but there are people helping us,” he says candidly.

We’re sitting in his office in the university’s newly built administrative block.

With orange orchards on one side and surrounded by the lush natural vegetation, a hallmark of the lowveld, Mpumalanga’s first university is a tranquil oasis just 10 minutes away from the hustle and bustle of Nelspruit, the province’s rapidly growing capital city.

The university inherited the 32-year-old Lowveld Agricultural College’s premises, so nothing has changed structurally here on the main campus.

Eventually, there will be new buildings and a whole new look: a jury set up by the higher education department has selected four companies to design the new campus at a cost of about R10?billion.

For now, only a banner hanging at the new entrance welcoming people to the University of Mpumalanga suggests the sea change taking place here.

Imposing cycads line the path on to campus from the main gate.

There’s none of the bustle and buzz you’d expect from a university campus – small groups of students, in pairs or trios, walk together between classes.

But get them talking and suddenly the buzz is there.

Mpho Leqoalane (19) is a vivacious Bachelor of Agriculture student from Katlehong.

She says studying in Mpumalanga isn’t just a way to escape the craziness of Joburg life but an opportunity to make history.

“It’s a huge challenge because everyone is looking at us as the new students?...?how we’re going to perform. And the fact that I’m making history is very nice,” Leqoalane says.

She calls herself a “sexy farmer” and laments that most young people are narrow-minded in their attitudes to agriculture.

Mandisi Ntungwa, who’s from Qutsa in Eastern Cape, came to Mpumalanga because he could not get a space in an institution closer to home and there were few places where a degree in agriculture was offered.

“I’m the only one from Eastern Cape and that makes it a bit difficult to adapt, but everything is going well so far,” he says.

When we arrive in Mogotlane’s office, the university is a week into its academic year after a launch function officiated by Mduduzi Manana, the deputy minister of higher education and training.

The main campus has admitted 40 Bachelor of Agriculture first-year students, the majority of whom hail from Mpumalanga.

There are also existing Lowveld Agricultural College students on campus, ­continuing their second- and third-year courses.

On the other side of Nelspruit, a stone’s throw away from the banks of the Crocodile River towards Kanyamazane township, lies the university’s second campus.

Here, 20 hospitality management diploma students have been enrolled in the Mpumalanga Regional Training Trust Hospitality and Tourism Academy – which previously offered further education and training (FET) courses.

Mogotlane says the FET component of the academy will continue to exist.

“What they’re doing there is wonderful because kids who didn’t pass matric are getting trained to be absorbed into the tourism industry. We’ll keep that while our students will be doing their diplomas,” says Mogotlane.

Sibusiso Sibiya (21) and Veleminah Buthelezi (19), who are from Barberton and Graskop, respectively, say being closer to home is an advantage for them.

Sibiya, a hospitality management student, says: “This is an opportunity not to worry about adapting to new surroundings. I would have looked for a university far from home if the province still didn’t have one.”

One hundred more new students have enrolled at the university’s third campus in the former KwaNdebele College of Education in Siyabuswa, 300km northwest of Nelspruit.

This group is doing a Bachelor of Education (Foundation Phase) and have been drawn together from across provinces.

“We’re starting small,” says Mogotlane.

“In the coming weeks, we’re going into a big meeting where we’re going to be planning a programme qualification mix and deciding which ones are feasible. As we grow, we’ll be introducing newer courses – for example the sciences, the commerce subjects, law disciplines and health sciences. Eventually, there will be 18?000 students in 2025.”

The department decided to start with programmes that are relevant to Mpumalanga’s economy, which is why agriculture and tourism are two of the earliest offerings.

The education programme was chosen since teachers are always in demand here and elsewhere on the continent.

While advice from other universities’ founding fathers is impossible without a seance, Mogotlane and his colleagues have established partnerships with institutions like the University of Johannesburg and the University of KwaZulu-Natal to help design the new kid on the block’s programmes.

“What is important to note is that we’re not going to compromise on quality offerings and the other thing is that this isn’t a black university, but a university for South Africans. The historical context of universities doesn’t apply here,” he says.

For more information, visit the university’s website at www.ump.ac.za

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