Student ‘punished for being poor’ gets debt paid

The University of Limpopo confirmed it has withheld the bachelor of arts degree in media studies Sello Molewa achieved in 2007 because – as spokesperson Kgalema Mohuba stated – “he owes the university R9 770”. 

Like any other graduate, Molewa was invited to his graduation ceremony in 2008, but was conferred just an empty envelope due to outstanding fees. Eight years later Molewa (32), who comes from a poor family in rural town Tzaneen, still does not have this crucial document.

Molewa said he incurred the debt because of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s (NSFAS) failure to fully settle his fees for the final year. NSFAS did not deny or confirm Molewa’s assertion.

Molewa’s pensioner parents could not settle the debt, nor could he from the earnings of the menial jobs he subsequently went on to do in Gauteng. 

Citing policy, the university based in Mankweng, a rural community outside Polokwane, would not confer Molewa his degree. Mohuba told the Mail & Guardian last week: “Our certification policy states clearly that certificates are issued to graduates whose fees accounts are fully settled. 

“Students who owe the university in fees are allowed to graduate, however, the university withhold their certificates pending the settlement of the account.”

The events that unfolded in Molewa’s life since the day he went home with “just an envelope with nothing in it”, after three years of study, are what led him to the Marathon informal settlement near Germiston. This is where he resides, while holding a low-paying and unskilled job. 

Anonymous donor
But on Tuesday afternoon tables turned for the better for Molewa concerning the debt. An Australian national working in Johannesburg for a development bank, in an executive position, called the M&G and offered to pay the debt. 

Within just two hours after the initial call and getting the university’s banking details, the benefactor had paid. Asking to remain anonymous, but known to the M&G, he said his decision was inspired by principles of developmental banking, the sector in which he has worked for years. 

“I’ve been working around the world doing development banking for many years. In fact today I was doing an induction for new recruits and one of them asked what is development banking? At the end of the day, development banking is about alleviating poverty. That’s what we do for a living.” 

Also, he recently “got a pretty reasonable sort of a bonus. Why the hell wouldn’t I give a bit of it to help some local who deserves help? I was impressed with what came through about him in your article.”

Realising a dream
Molewa was elated by the news. “I’m really grateful to him for finally coming to my aid and helping me realise my dream of finally getting to hold my degree,” he told the M&G

He said he understood seeking a job in the media industry “is going to be a big challenge, but one that I’m ready to take on. If I can just have my degree on my possession then I’ll see my way out”. 

“I’m very happy that I should now get my degree from the university.”

Withholding students’ certificates and results is standard practice at the country’s universities, which are themselves battling bulging student debt. Graduates with outstanding fees receive letters from their university confirming that they have completed their studies. The universities and government argue that this places the graduates in good stead to land a job.

But Molewa found the confirmation letter from the University of Limpopo to be useless. “I even failed to get an internship with that letter,” he said last week. “It actually doesn’t mean anything to employers. I have first-hand experience of that. “I remember this one time I went for an interview and they told me ‘but no, you don’t have the certificate and people who’ve applied do have certificates’. That’s what made things difficult [to get a media job]. If I had received the certificate I could have gotten a job and paid the university.”

Withholding results a bad response
The National Assembly’s portfolio committee on higher education and training has many times lambasted universities and their representative body, Higher Education South Africa (Hesa), for the practice. Former chairperson of the committee Ishmael Malale once told Hesa “withholding of results was a bad response, since the rich students would get their results”.

Pinky Phosa, the committee’s current chairperson, last week told the M&G that while it was understandable that South Africa’s “universities are facing high rising student debt … when it comes to cases involving the poorest students, we encourage universities to engage with the students rather than holding them to ransom”. 

Blade Nzimande’s higher education and training department has “over the last few years been in discussion with vice-chancellors” about withholding of results as leverage for payment of student debt, deputy director general responsible for universities Diane Parker said. 

“Most vice-chancellors have agreed to let students who have graduated be part of the graduation ceremonies, but no agreement has been reached for releasing results of students who still owe the institutions. However, the ministry was assured that where prospective employers request proof of students having completed their studies, such proof is provided (to the employer).”

Parker said withholding of certificates of students who are indebted is a general practice by all universities. It is a debt management mechanism. But “while it is understandable that certificates be withheld, the practice of withholding results to poor students is completely deplorable”, she said. 

“The minister [Nzimande] has on a number of occasions expressed his disappointment that students are denied access to their results, which compromises their ability to get jobs or even further their studies. However, the ultimate responsibility lies with the individual university councils to balance between student debt and their policies.”

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