The country’s 23 universities have a total of three-quarters of a million students combined. An estimated 350 000 of these attend full time. But until now universities have been in the dark about the impact of HIV on students and staff. And it’s important to have this information, says Durban University of Technology’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Roy du Pre.
‘We have students who come and register, they write an exam in the first year, they write the second year, then they disappear. We wonder, ‘where are they’? Have they dropped out because they’ve got no funds? Have they dropped out for other reasons? And in many cases when we actually follow up – perhaps the debt collectors go after them – they cannot find them. The persons have died in the meantime’¦ We have staff, but if we don’t know the prevalence of HIV/AIDS among our staff, in five years’ time we’d wake up and we’d find half of our staff is not in front of the students in the lecture rooms. They may either have succumbed to HIV/AIDS or they may be ill and they can no longer come’.
The study will target a total sample of 25 000 students and staff from across the country’s universities. The research will involve participants filling out a questionnaire on issues such as their knowledge about HIV and their sexual practices, says lead researcher, Dr Mark Colvin.
‘We hope to be able to give the nation a really good picture of HIV on our university campuses. What portion of staff and students are infected, how is it distributed across the campuses by faculty, by year of study, by geographical area ‘ a really good picture one moment in time. It’s linked to what we call a Knowledge Attitudes Practice and Behaviour questionnaire. And so, that gives us a lot of detail about what are the risk factors. Is it particularly risky factors amongst higher management level? Are residential based students at particular risk for various reasons? So, it will give us a good idea of what’s driving the epidemic as well’.
The study results will help universities plan better HIV prevention programmes and improve how they respond to students and staff already living with HIV.