The University of South Africa, one of the world’s ‘mega universities’, caters for over 300 000 enrolled students. It can readily be understood, therefore, that arranging its examination timetables to avoid clashes with Jewish holidays poses major logistical challenges. In the past, the university has generally been able to shift the relevant dates once alerted to any problems, but sometimes this has proven to be simply unfeasible.
Thus has been the case over the past two years, with a number of religiously observant Jewish students having their exams set on Yom Tov and Shabbat, in this case Succot and Shemini Atzeret.
This year, around thirty such students were affected. Unless an alternative arrangement for writing could be made, they would have had no other choice but to apply to defer the exam to the following, official examination period. Amongst the disadvantages that this would entail was the fact that in such a case this would be regarded as the student’s “second and final examination opportunity”, i.e. there would be no provision for a Supplementary exam as is provided for those writing the first exam. In addition, it would mean delay students receiving their degrees by some six months. What is more, in a number of cases no deferred exam was offered, which would mean those students being unable to write at all this year and having to reregister for the same courses in 2012.
Fortunately, it has been possible for the SAJBD and the university, working closely together, to find a workable solution to the problem. This has been for the students to write their exams immediately after Yom Tov at Beyachad, with the Board providing the necessary logistical assistance (including paying for suitably qualified invigilators). Prior arrangements inter alia included having the relevant rabbonim provide the necessary confirmation that the students were strictly Shomer Shabbat and Rosh Beth Din Rabbi Moshe Kurtstag addressing the students on their halachic obligation to uphold the integrity of the examination process.
On behalf of the Jewish community, I would like to record our grateful thanks to UNISA for making these alternative arrangements possible. Their willingness to work with us in arriving at a workable solution has demonstrated both a respect for the religious needs of the Jewish community and a principled adherence to the constitutional right to practice one’s religion without being unfairly disadvantaged. The ideal situation going forward, of course, is to prevent any serious scheduling clashes from the outset, but should future cases nevertheless recur, we know that such cases are resolvable.
In bringing this matter to a successful resolution, a special thank-you is due to our national director, Wendy Kahn. As in the past, Wendy displayed boundless energy, tenacity and creativity in pursuing a workable solution. She cared deeply about the dilemma of each and every student, and was completed committed to doing everything in her power to assist them. Much of the most crucial arrangements had to be made by her whilst she was supposed to be enjoying her well-deserved leave, but there was never a question that she would be on hand to do what had to be done. Kol Hakavod to her in particular, and to everyone else involved in this important initiative.
This Above Board column first appeared in the South African Jewish Report on 27 October 2011