Radical approach needed to tackle student debt

Habib promised that the new University SA would shake off the image of Hesa, which has been seen as an organisation representing only the interests of vice-chancellors. (Gallo)

Habib promised that the new University SA would shake off the image of Hesa, which has been seen as an organisation representing only the interests of vice-chancellors. (Gallo)

Mbulelo Bikwani, chairperson of University Councils Chairpersons Forum-SA (UCCF-SA), addressed vice-chancellors of the country’s 26 public universities and higher education minister Blade Nzimande at the launch of Universities South Africa in Kempton Park, Gauteng, on Wednesday night. The organisation replaces Higher Education South Africa (Hesa). 

Its founding chairperson Adam Habib, who is also vice-chancellor of Wits University, vowed Universities SA is a “fundamentally different organisation” from Hesa. “It’s meant to have much more lobbying agenda. It’s meant to be an activist organisation. I think that’s the fundamental change,” he said.  

Bikwani urged the new organisation to tackle student debt a little bit more radically than Hesa. The level of indebtedness was “not just a problem but it is a full-blown crisis, a crisis that did not find its way into the agenda items of Hesa,” Bikwani said.  

“If it did, it was not one of the pressure points that required the requisite attention, I would imagine. This excruciating situation affects every day young South Africans whose sin is just to try to create better lives for themselves and their families.”

Bikwani told the audience “one of my moments of anguish” as chairperson of council of Cape Peninsula University of Technology “is chairing a session about fee increases”. 

“[This is] because I know I am expected to preside over a generational social problem that is so painful to deal with within conventional frameworks. “As a country we cannot afford to let any striving young South African be priced out of the education system that they need so much [in order] to get ahead in life. Students must be able to attend university with some financial burden but it must not be an unbearable financial burden. 

“A big part of the solution to this problem does not lie in making university access affordable for the generations to come, but it is addressing a crisis that is currently being experienced by those who currently attend university from poor families and it affects them every day of their lives – and this is the overwhelming student debt.”

Affecting the economy
Poor students consequently graduate with an albatross of loan debt, Bikwani said: “Burdened by the heavy weight of long-term debt, fewer graduates are able to buy their first home, start a new business or invest in their future after university.  

“This is the delay in living a life even after you acquired a qualification because of no other reason except that you were born into a poor family.  The stacks are high for those who are graduated into debt and we cannot, as universities, continue as if it is business as usual and graduate our students into debt.”

This situation did not only hurt the graduates, but the country’s whole economy too, added Bikwani.

Bikwani’s comments about student debt come just weeks after the Mail & Guardian first reported on Sello Molewa, a graduate who was trapped in a squatter camp because the University of Limpopo would not confer him the degree he achieved in 2007, due to outstanding student fees. 

A good samaritan settled Molewa’s debt after reading about his plight in the paper. The M&G knows of two potential job offers to Molewa.

Provocative thinking
Universities SA gives Bikwani new hope: “We, as UCCF-SA, are very confident that this matter will be treated like the crisis it is and that is exactly what we will expect Universities South Africa to do, place it on the agenda.   

“We need wild provocative thinking to resolve this generational social problem. Unconventional thinking will better serve us in our attempt to find solutions to this situation and I have no doubt that our collective wisdom will make sure that we get a grip on this situation. Yes it is the logic of the situation from which Universities SA is formed,” he said. 

Habib told the M&G student debt is one of the issues that the organisation would tackle with new vim and lobbyist agenda. “I think [Bikwani] is absolutely right. Student debt, [which leads to] student exclusions, is a single biggest challenge that we confront in the system.    

“But what we also have to bear in mind are challenges on the universities’ side. They’ve got to pay lights and water and salaries, all of which are doubling and increasing. The government subsidy has been below inflation and actually declining per capita. 

“And so the trick is how do we close the circle and manage these competing pressures. That’s the conversation we need. University vice-chancellors can’t do it own their own. They would have to do it in engagements with the ministry, they would have to do it in engagements with the student organisation and so that collective conversation has to happen. 

“[Student debt] is one of the single biggest issues confronting us and that’s what we need a conversation on.”

Changing image
Habib promised University SA would shake off the image of Hesa, which has been seen as an organisation representing only the interests of vice-chancellors. 

“We’re going to be much more involved in lobbying [and] in developing a collective response towards our constitutional goals of building a democratic and economically inclusive society. These issues could be on student financing, on transformation. It could be on many of the issues that are on the forefront of higher education,” said Habib.

Debt main cause for exclusion of poor students
Nzimande urged the new structure not to become adversarial to government. But its new “orientation is extremely welcome as it signals a renewed and revitalised intention to work in partnership and collaboration with government and other higher education role-players”, he said. 

According to figures from Nzimande’s office, local student gross debt is currently sitting at about R5-billion across universities. It has been growing at an average of 2.3% a year.

Student leaders often identify indebtedness as the main cause for exclusion of poor students from continuing their university studies. The country’s universities withhold results of students with outstanding fees and disallow them from registering. 

The institutions withhold qualifications of those who have completed but cannot settle fees, as the University of Limpopo did in Molewa’s case.

Senior ANC politicians have repeatedly lambasted the practice. But the deficit of funds in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme is the largest driver of student indebtedness. Each year the scheme rejects thousands of new and continuing students due to insufficient funds. 

As the M&G reported earlier in the year, majority of the rejected resort to raising registration fees – but only to fail settling all fees and become barred from registering the following year.

Bongani Nkosi

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