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#FeesMustFall: Plans in place to ensure Wits medical students graduate

Most of the country’s medical schools say final-year medical students will write exams.

Amid continuing protests, the University of the Witwatersrand says that it has formulated plans to ensure that final year medical students will write exams.

“The university has established plans to ensure that examinations are written without disruption. We obviously would not want these plans to be published,” says the school’s faculty of health sciences dean, Martin Veller.

Veller says while some health sciences classes have been disrupted, the school expects all 289 students to sit for final exams slated to begin on November 3 and run through to early December. 

Wits is the fourth of the country’s five major medical schools – alongside the universities of KwaZulu-Natal, Stellenbosch and Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences – to confirm to Bhekisisa that they expect final-year medical students to write in time to fill community service spots in January.

The news follows earlier reservations voiced by some in the media, including Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, that the #FeesMustFall protests could disrupt the health care system if almost 3 000 new medical graduates did not take up internship or community service positions next year.

“If the regular intake of healthcare professionals into the system is disrupted, even for a short time, it will have a significant effect on the ability to ensure that all health services can be delivered,” Veller explains.

“These consequences will only serve to deepen the inequality in our systems. With thousands fewer healthcare professionals in the system, the impact on rural areas will be felt hardest,” he says.

Graduates in health-related professions, including those from fields such as nursing and psychology, as well as physio, occupational and speech therapists, are required to complete one year of community service in the public sector before they can register as professionals with the Health Professions Council of South Africa. Failure to do so means they will not be allowed to practice. Newly graduated doctors must also complete an internship before their community service. Introduced in 1997, mandatory community service aims to help staff chronically under-resourced rural health facilities in particular.

During their internship and community service years, medical graduates must provisionally register with the council. Department of health spokesperson Popo Maja adds that the council will remain open into December to accommodate graduates, should exam results be delayed because of protests.

“The department has been informed that some universities, if forced to stop their 2016 academic year, plan to extend their academic programme to the first three months of 2017, which will still allow medical students to graduate and take up posts by April 2017,” Maja says.

However, he says the department has not received any indication that final-year medical students won’t graduate this year.

Late last week, the Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University in Ga-Rankuwa outside Pretoria, released a statement saying it had reached a “peace agreement” with students. In the statement, the university commended student leaders and committed itself to assisting those who had been traumatised by the arrest of fellow students.

According to Veller, three Wits medical students and one pharmacy student who were arrested for violating a court interdict barring students from, among other activities, “unlawfully occupying” university facilities, have been released from custody and are expected to appear in court in November. 

Laura Lopez Gonzalez is a freelance health journalist and editor. She was Bhekisisa's news editor then deputy editor between 2016 and 2020.