What are the challenges of being a private institution?
There are many. First, one must distinguish amongst the privates. St Augustine is a ‘not-for-profit’ – the other privates are for profit. Thus, for us it is not just about student numbers and as a result, funding remains a constant challenge. As with all of the privates, we receive no financial assistance from the South African state – this despite the fact that, uniquely amongst the private institutions, we are recognized as a National Research Foundation (NRF) Institution because of the contribution that we make to the country’s research objectives. We are thus reliant exclusively on the fees that we receive from our students and on donations made by generous benefactors, both local and international.
Apart from the financial challenges, a further particularly frustrating challenge is that although we are a university in all senses of the word (we conduct research and offer a range of degrees from bachelor through to doctorate), in terms of prevailing legislation, St Augustine is not entitled to call itself a university; this detracts from the marketability of the institution.
How do students benefit from your unique environment and approach to education?
In 1994 student enrolment at South Africa’s universities stood at 495 396; by 2012 the number had increased to 953 373 (as reported in The Challenges of Undergraduate Education: Looking Back and Ahead by Elizabeth de Kadt). According to the White Paper for Post-School Education and Training of 2013, this figure represents about 17.3% in the age cohort 18-24. It is the ambition of the South African government to increase enrolment to about 1.6 million people – or 25% of the relevant age cohort – by 2030.
Although increasing the number of students enrolled for tertiary education is critically important if South Africa is effectively to compete internationally, improving throughput rates is an even greater need. Research has shown that only about 25% of those who register for undergraduate study at contact universities graduate in regulation time; about 48 % graduate within five years; at distance providers, such as UNISA, the graduation figures are considerably lower. Overall, it is estimated that around 55% of an intake will never graduate. These figures translate to an average throughput rate of below 20%.
The dilemma that these figures present to government is two fold: it is already subsiding 50% of all students in tertiary education and will find it difficult to increase funding in the future and it is failing to improve throughput rates.
State institutions alone are unable to address the crisis; the private providers also have a contribution to make.
At the undergraduate level, St Augustine currently offers the BA and the BTh degrees (and it is also registered to offer, through the Department of Higher Education, a Bachelor of Commerce degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics). The degrees address all relevant academic subjects, but also include components on academic development, research skills and numeracy skills. Further, apart from the academic quality of the degrees, St Augustine prides itself on the personal attention devoted to its students. Favourable staff/student ratios and high-impact teaching (higher than normal ‘contact hours’ between staff and students), allows opportunity for interaction and debate, as well as personal growth and the development of self-confidence. Not surprisingly, the undergraduate throughput rate of St Augustine is more than double that of the large state institutions – in excess of 40%.
Our postgraduate degrees are offered on a block release basis; allowing students to continue to pursue their professional careers while studying at St Augustine for one week each quarter.
Are there any ‘lessons’ that wider South Africa (education and other sectors) could learn from how your college operates and functions?
For us, it is not just about the learning; we are concerned about the whole person. The academic community – staff and students – that we are attempting to build at St Augustine is one that is characterised by mutual respect, sincere dialogue, and protection of the rights of individuals; an academic community that assists each of its members to achieve wholeness as human persons; in turn, everyone in the community helps in promoting unity, and each one, according to his or her role and capacity.
Do your students have a different approach or willingness to learn compared to those at other institutions?
Certainly at the postgraduate level, there is a real sense of excitement about and commitment to the subject matter. At the undergraduate level, at least in the first year of study, this is less obvious. Nevertheless, the ambition remains that a ‘different approach or willingness to learn’ is made manifest by the time the student reaches the final year of study.
What is your institution doing in terms of playing a role in times of socio-economic turmoil?
Shortly after the democratic transition, in 1997 – because of concern for the alleged degeneration of the nation’s morality – the South African government convened a Moral Summit. In drawing attention to the gravity of the situation, the then Deputy Minister of Education, Fr Smangaliso Mkhatshwa, held that South Africa was ‘sitting on a moral time-bomb’: unless issues of moral formation were addressed, further moral degeneration was inevitable. The many manifestations of the ‘time bomb’ were held to include: murder, robbery and theft, rape, women and child abuse, domestic violence, drug trafficking, fraud and embezzlement of public funds, crooked business dealings. More subtle – and potentially more damaging – manifestations identified included: devaluation of people, racism, undermining or abuse of the Bill of Rights, breakdown of family as a fundamental social institution, the gap between the haves and the have-nots, laziness, individualism and selfishness, lack of will to resist evil, lack of moral guidance and role models in the teaching profession, corruption in police and other civil services, dishonesty of some religious leaders, slow delivery to the poor, perverted religious beliefs. Little has changed since 1997; indeed, if anything, the situation has worsened.
Various strategies have been suggested as responses to the ‘time bomb’; clearly, all within society have a contribution to make. A number of studies, conducted both locally and internationally, emphasise the importance of values based education – such as that provided by St Augustine.
All of our effort at St Augustine is inspired by the values of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Indeed, the ‘golden thread’ running through all of our degree offerings is an emphasis on the dignity of the human person. Our ambition is not just about knowledge production and application; it is about the development of the whole human person – we aim to produce graduates who have learnt to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better.
Have you suffered any damage or delays as a result of the recent student uprisings?
Have you been able to provide support to students at risk?
At St Augustine we are committed to the principle that that those with academic potential or ability should not be denied access to an education. We therefore have a Bursary Scheme through which we are constantly attempting to raise funds. We offer bursaries to students at both the undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Our bursaries cover 25%, 50%, 75% or 100% of the tuition fee. In cases of dire need, we also provide students with a subsistence supplementation.
Your aim is for your students ‘to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better’ – do you have examples of how past students are achieving this or benefitting from that guidance?
Although Catholic, St Augustine is neither exclusivist nor parochial. At this critical juncture in the history of our country, the need for values-based education is overwhelming. In the face of the many developments in the social, economic and political spheres that are consistently undermining of the social compact on which post-apartheid South Africa is being forged, the challenge is to imbue in the country’s youth – regardless of racial or religious background – an unequivocal respect for the dignity of the human person and a determination to build a more just and equitable society that will benefit all. Graduates of St Augustine are uniquely positioned to embrace that challenge.
 South African Government ‘Freedom and Obligation: A report on Moral Regeneration’, available at: <http://www.gov.za/documents/freedom-and-obligation-report-moral-regeneration> (accessed on 15 October 2015).
 See Anass Bayaga and Louw Jaysveree ‘Moral Degeneration: Crisis in South African Schools?’ (2011) 28:3 Journal of Social Science 199-210, and the bibliography attached thereto.
Committed to the values of the Catholic intellectual tradition, our mission is to produce graduates who have learnt ‘to think rigorously, so as to act rightly and to serve humanity better’.
Despite our relative youth and limited size, many of our alumni are contributing, where they are able, to the common good; for example, in politics and administration (at both the national and municipal levels, and across the range of political parties), in the law (as judges, advocates, attorneys and prosecutors), in business (as CEOs and company directors), and in religious ministry (across a range of denominations and in a variety of positions).
What do you see as the major challenges for education in SA?
Obviously funding … and the abandonment of values-based education. Instead of the emphasis being on advancing the common good, education tends exclusively to concentrate on individual fulfilment.
What are the strengths of what we can offer local and international students?
For the moment, South Africa tertiary education sector is internationally competitive. Our teaching and research is of a high standard, while tuition fees are significantly lower than that charged in other Western countries. However, we must remain vigilant if we are to maintain that standard.