The education department's Central Applications Clearing House (CACH) online system was running full steam on Monday with thousands of prospective students hoping to secure a last-minute place.
"The numbers are showing that the students are using it," said Joel Ramatshape, director for the Department of Higher Education and Training's (DHET) central application service, which finds places for matriculants to study.
The government online application portal searches the data bases of institutions of higher education to find where there are still places available and which courses are still available.
Universities and colleges are hoping the tool will be used and that there will be no mass walk-ins by student activists. Threats of mass walk-ins already have some authorities on tenterhooks.
The online system covers universities, Technical and Vocational Training (TVET) colleges, Sector Education and Training Authorities (Seta's) and registered private higher institutions.
Ramatshape had counted 8 021 SMSes since the CACH opened on Friday, 394 voice messages requesting assistance, and 90 requests for call backs, he said.
Between Friday and Monday morning, 4 671 students had registered themselves on the CACH system.
Private individuals are also putting word out to offer students, who have no internet access, the use of their computers so that that they can get their applications in. This is part of the greater community support for students, after President Jacob Zuma's unexpected fee-free education announcement on December 16.
Treasury must still say where the money will come from, but full bursaries for tuition and study materials to qualifying South African students will be provided at public TVET colleges and universities, as well as subsidised accommodation or transport, capped at specific levels for those who qualify, starting with students who enter in 2018.
National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) packages already allocated to returning or existing students in 2018 will be converted from loans to bursaries, provided that they meet academic progression requirements.
CACH does not guarantee a place, but it does match applicants' exam results and study preferences with places that need to be filled.
The CACH system started in 2013 and has been able to assist students who are no longer allowed to walk in to campus following a 2012 tragedy due to desperate crowds trying to register at the University of Johannesburg.
A mother, Gloria Sekwena, was killed and 17 other people were injured in the crush of people trying to secure a place at the institution.
Plea to use CACH
Universities South Africa (USAf) reiterated the no walk-ins rule on January 1, urging prospective students to use CACH.
The representative body said Zuma's announcement on fee-free education on December 16 caught them by surprise and increased the potential for late applications.
"However, we understood clearly that there are first year students who didn't previously qualify for financial aid but who now do, under the new NSFAS dispensation," USAf said in a statement.
USAf met with the DHET and the NSFAS to discuss the implications.
"A clearly defined pathway should be established for such potential candidates. At that meeting it was decided that such students, whether they had applied to NSFAS or not, must submit their details online to the DHET's CACH," said USAf CEO Professor Ahmed Bawa.
This system can assist with the placement of students, who did not apply to any university because of funding, but who now qualify and wish to be considered for an academic space.
Meeting on the cards
A further meeting with education authorities on the issue was reportedly set for Monday, but further information was not immediately available.
In the meantime, Cape Peninsula University of Technology spokesperson Lauren Kansley said their focus was on the acceptance of students who applied on time.
They would then move to the waiting list if there was space left.
"And that's a big if," cautioned Kansley. "But that is still many weeks from now."
University of Western Cape (UWC) spokesperson Luthando Tyhalibongo said they were looking forward to welcoming more than 4 300 first years for 2018.
Applicants have received their final acceptance letters and online registration has started for senior students.
Assisted registration will begin on January 18.
Orientation for first year students starts on January 29 and the academic year will commence on February 5 at UWC.
Working with NSFAS
He added: "The financial aid office is working closely with NSFAS to implement the changes announced by [the] government.
Matriculants who did well but have not yet applied should also use the CACH.
"Unfortunately, the university will not be able to assist walk-ins due to infrastructural limitations and teaching capacity."
University of Stellenbosch spokesperson Martin Viljoen said they had not had walk-ins yet.
The University of Cape Town said it would also not accept walk-in applications and echoed the call that matriculants use the CACH system to put in a late application.
UCT expects to enrol approximately 29 000 students in 2018, with 4 200 places available for undergraduate study in 2018.
Registration begins on January 29 and continues until February 14 for returning students and those who have already received offers of study from the university.
Students who meet relevant criteria have the option of registering remotely in January, however, the majority of registration is done on campus.
Students who have the required matric qualifications, who have not been offered a place or who are looking for a place, can register with CACH at https://cach.dhet.gov.za/Applicant/SignUp, or:
contact the toll-free number on 0800 356 635;
SMS their full names and ID numbers to 49200; or
search Facebook on: https://www.facebook.com/CACHSACACH
An SMS will be sent containing username and password details and the recipient can go ahead and register online for a place when one becomes available.
The call centre service is open from Monday to Friday between 8:00 and 18:00 and on Saturday between 8:00 to 14:00. It is closed on Sundays.