Old debts cost universities dearly

While university students on some campuses have been calling for historical fees debt to be scrapped, Parliament heard this week that the amount owed is R9-billion.

Universities South Africa (USAf), an association of universities, told the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education that, if the debt is scrapped, it would cause the collapse of universities.

For the past two weeks students at several campuses embarked on a protest to call for the debt to be scrapped because it meant that students who owed the institutions money were being excluded from the 2019 registration.

The protests resulted in some universities temporarily shutting down. At the Durban University of Technology a protest led to the death of a student, Mlungisi Madonsela, who was allegedly shot by a security guard. Madonsela was buried on Thursday.

The chief executive of USAf, Ahmed Bawa, told the committee that the R9-billion historical debt is a “huge dent in the long-term sustainability of the university system” and requires a national discussion to address it.

“It’s not simply something that we can wish away, this debt,” he said.

The vice-chancellor of Rhodes University, Sizwe Mabizela, who is also a member of USAf’s executive, told the committee that universities have mechanisms in place to deal with student debt. He said it was disingenuous to suggest that universities arbitrarily throw academically talented students on the street because of unpaid fees. “More often than not, it is students who have failed, who are repeating who, if you like, are high-risk, who find it difficult to make a case for themselves to be supported by universities.”

Bawa said R1-billion of the debt was owed to universities by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). The deputy director at the department of higher education and training, Diane Parker, said the department and treasury were in the process of getting this settled by March.

She said the department would do due diligence on the debt owed by NSFAS-funded students who registered last year with debt and have since accrued new debt and this would be paid.

Debt owed by students who are not funded by NSFAS was a “thorny issue”, she said, because these students were required to pay their own fees by whatever means.

“We do know that institutions have policies in terms of dealing with student debt and that students need to engage one on one [with universities] on how to deal with this, but we have urged all universities to find ways to assist students in good academic standing to register. “As government we have provided an enormous amount of funding to support poor and working-class students … it’s going to be extremely difficult to ask the fiscus for more funding given all the other issues that need to be dealt with … So we do require civil society, parents, donors and universities themselves to come on board and assist with this situation.” The chairperson of the portfolio committee, Connie September, said the department had an “obligation” to find a solution to the issue of historical debt.

“We can’t wait for five years for it to vanish. It is a major inequity that students from the old system are still carrying debt while their juniors in first and second year are coming up debt-free.”

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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