Eastern Cape students left in the lurch

A number of students at the Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape face a bleak future because their loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme have not been paid.

The Democratic Alliance (DA), which visited the university's Mthatha campus on Thursday to collect a petition about the unpaid loans, puts the number of affected students at 3 400. The party said it would now take up the students' matter with the higher education department and the scheme's board. 

Annelie Lotriet, the party's higher education spokesperson, told the Mail & Guardian she learnt from the students that their applications were approved for loans in the beginning of the year, but there was still no indication if their fees would be paid.

"These are senior students, and not first year students," Lotriet said. "Their fear is that they will not be allowed to register next year." 

Lotriet, an MP and member of the portfolio committee on higher education, said they were yet to determine what is behind funding problems at the university. "We'll need to determine if the university received all funding or not."

Angela Church, the university's spokesperson, confirmed there are students who are facing funding complications. She would not confirm the number of students affected, but said the university "paid all [scheme] loans for 2012".

The university approved more students for the public loan scheme than it actually had funds available. "We've received our full National Student Financial Aid Scheme allocation for 2012, yet some management staff allowed students to complete application forms creating an expectation that funds would be forthcoming," said Church. 

"The university is in a process of sourcing additional funds to assist these students," she added.

Students' problems in accessing funds are a direct result of university management failing to plan properly, Siphelele Gavu, a student representative council leader in one campus, told the M&G.

He said the university's financial aid scheme's 2012 funds were allocated using student numbers from last year, but both tuition and residence fees were hiked by more than 100% in January. "Management failed to do the maths. The [funding] crisis is due to maladministration by management."

But Gavu rejected the DA's claim that the number of students still without loans stood at 3 400. The number of affected students was running at thousands some previous months, but "the crisis has now been minimised," said Gavu.

For most part of the year the Student Representative Council has been working with management to secure funds for students. Gavu said they recently secured over R40-million from the higher education and training department, and there is now a shortfall of more than R30-million.

"The [university's] chief financial officer will meet the scheme's board next week to try secure more funds," Gavu said. 

The rural WSU remains the most troubled university in the country.  Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande dissolved its council in November last year and placed the university under administration. 

Citing a hard-hitting report by an independent assessor that found maladministration and dysfunctional governance, Nzimande appointed academic Lourens Van Staden as the university's administrator. 

The university has over 24 000 students in its four campuses, and it is looking to increase student numbers to 27 000 next year. Iris Mandindi, the scheme's spokesperson, did not respond to queries from the M&G.

Bongani Nkosi

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