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​Universities have plans to register indebted students – but not all of them

Allowing indebted missing middle students to register this year “places the financial health of many universities in serious jeopardy”, a body representing the vice-chancellors of the country’s 26 universities has warned.

Thousands of students are due to return to university in the coming weeks.

Outstanding fees for last year are about R2-billion, said the chief executive of Universities South Africa, Professor Ahmed Bawa.

Responding to a request from Gwebinkundla Qonde, the director general of the department of higher education, that universities admit “academically deserving” students who had outstanding debt, Bawa stated in a strongly worded letter that this would add pressure to the cash flow problems in the first quarter of 2017.

“Students who have not paid their 2016 fees, or those who have partially paid, have no incentive to pay the outstanding fees. In fact, some universities have reported a significant drop in the payment of the 2016 fees,” Bawa said in the letter, dated November 29 2016.

The term missing-middle students refers to those from families who are too rich to qualify for financial assistance from the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) but who are also too poor to afford fees or to qualify for commercial or private loans.

A snap survey by the Mail & Guardian this week found that almost 66 000 students at just five universities, who were not beneficiaries of NSFAS, owed R952.7-million in fees for last year. The University of Pretoria confirmed that one student had an outstanding debt of R180 000.

The institutions said there was a possibility that students with outstanding debt would be prevented from registering but added that they were desperately trying to avoid that.

Willie du Plessis, spokesperson for North-West University, said if students failed to make payment plans, they could not be allowed to register. Although they tried to accommodate as many academically deserving students as possible, they were evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Rikus Delport, spokesperson for the University of Pretoria, said the university used its own funds as well as money from external sources to assist academically deserving students. “There is a possibility that students who are not performing academically and cannot repay their debt will not be able to register,” he said.

Herman Esterhuizen, spokesperson for the University of Johannesburg, said it required students to settle a portion of their debt before they were allowed to register.

University of Cape Town spokesperson Elijah Moholola said students owing less than R1 000 would automatically be allowed to register. Students with historical debt and who are on financial aid, or eligible for it, would also be allowed to register.

Students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) who owe R10 000 and below will have the debt automatically “rolled into their 2017 fees”. But those who owe more than R10 000 will be requested to pay half of this amount upon registration and enter into a payment plan to settle the balance.

A #FeesMustFall leader and former secretary general of the Wits student representative council, Fasiha Hassan, said she has been inundated with requests from students in need of financial assistance.

She said that, despite their fight against financial exclusions, it was heartbreaking that thousands of students will be barred from studying this year because of outstanding debt.

Diane Parker, the department of higher education’s deputy director general for universities, said in a statement that a major concern was that many students who could afford to pay were saying they do not have to “because they think they can register regardless of the debt they owe”.

“The department reached agreement with universities that they would ensure humane treatment and transparent debt management and debt relief processes to assist academically successful students who owe fees to enable them to register.”

She said there were no plans in place to wipe off debt owed by students for 2016.

“What we have committed to is to look into assisting NSFAS-qualifying students, who may be carrying debt from the 2016 financial year, to pay their debts. All other students are liable for their own fees and need to pay them.”

Criteria for identifying missing middle students

The department of higher education has agreed to subsidise the 8% increase in university tuition fees for students from the missing-middle category. The following criteria will be used to identify these students:

  1. Only South African citizens and permanent residents studying towards an undergraduate or postgraduate qualification in 2017 will be considered;
  2. The applicant and direct family (mother, father, spouse or legal guardian) must have a combined gross family income of no more than R600 000 a year;
  3. Applicants who applied for NSFAS funding are not required to submit this application;
  4. All learners who attended quintile one, two and three schools (the poorest schools) in grade 12 will automatically be considered; and
  5. Students who are recipients of internal university merit bursaries will be eligible for the 8% grant funding provided they fall within the R600 000 family income cap. — Source: Department of higher education and training

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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