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Debt drives students to despair

Tefelo Mabuya should be working on a cruise liner but that did not happen. He was also offered two internships, one in Australia and the other in the United States, but these did not materialise. 

Mabuya lost out on these opportunities because he could not produce his university qualification certificate. 

He studied hospitality management at Central University of Technology in Bloemfontein and graduated in 2018. But he owes the university R70 000 and he will not get his certificate until he pays his debt. He is not the only former student in this situation. 

In a reply to a parliamentary question in March, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said that between 2010 and 2020 more than 100 000 former students were yet to receive their qualification certificates but this had not happened because they have outstanding fees totalling more than R10-billion. The information is based on submissions made by 21 of the 26 universities. 

The Central University of Technology has one of the highest student debts. It is owed R1.8-billion by 12 985 students. 

Mabuya said this week that he did not qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme and that his mother had paid for his studies but she struggled to pay the fees.

“I was literally looking forward to finishing my studies, and settling the debt was something that we were going to look at after. We did not realise how much of a burden it was going to be,” he said. 

Last year, Mabuya got a job as a bartender in Cape Town and within months he was promoted to be the manager of the establishment. But, when Covid-19 hit, he was retrenched and he returned to Bloemfontein. By the time he was retrenched he had managed to decrease his debt from R90 000 to R70 000. 

Mabuya said he has been rejected so many times by prospective employers once they found out that he does not have “that main paper”. He is now working in the family business trying to make money just to survive. 

“To be honest it feels like I wasted a whole lot of money on my studies for nothing because now I cannot do anything. The experience I put on my CV alone does not really speak volumes like I expected. The qualification [certificate] is what really matters.”

Mabuya said he has realised that it will take him a long time to finish paying off his debt so that he can get his qualification certificate and find the job of his dreams. 

“I did try and I feel like I failed and my hands are tied at this point.”

Nzimande told parliament that some universities do assist former students who are looking for employment by providing proof of completion of their qualification or academic record to the potential employer if the student who has outstanding fees approaches the university with such a request. But not all universities do this, including the Central University of Technology. 

Of the 21 universities it is only the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) that said it does not withhold certificates or academic records of students even if they owe fees. But the university’s management is considering making a representation to CPUT’s council, the highest decision-making body, to review this practice. 

CPUT is owed R1.1-billion in outstanding fees. 

Part of the 15 demands by the South African Union of Students — which called for a national shutdown of universities three weeks ago — is that students must be provided with their academic records and certificates, even if they owe fees, and that historical debt must be written off. 

Sedzi Mmei owes the University of Johannesburg (UJ) R12 700.07. Last year, he was in his final year of his Bachelor of Accounting degree but he does not even know whether he has passed the exams. Because he owes the university he cannot get access to his academic record or get his results. 

His mother, who was paying for his fees, lost her job last year because of Covid-19.

“So far I am just sitting at home trying to find a job but some jobs require academic transcripts. It’s very difficult. Yo! It is not a nice experience.”

This week he said that he was willing to do any job that would help him pay off his debt so that he can get his academic records and possibly graduate in May. 

“It is a traumatising experience. I studied very hard to get here and then all of a sudden things are just falling to pieces. It’s very difficult to make progress. My life has just stopped,” he says. 

UJ is owed R538-million in outstanding fees by 7 722 students. 

The university with the highest student debt is Tshwane University of Technology, which is owed R4.4-billion by 11 255 students. 

Walter Sisulu University has the highest number of students with outstanding fees — 20 088 students owe the university R526-million. 

The chief executive of Universities South Africa, Professor Ahmed Bawa, recently told the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education that historical debt is estimated to stand at R14-billion, but could be much higher. 

In his closing statement of the ANC’s national executive committee meeting on Monday, President Cyril Ramaphosa said the body welcomed the work in progress to look at solutions to address student debt. 

Last week, Nzimande told the portfolio committee that his department was collecting data from universities to provide a profile of the students that have historical debt at each institution. 

He said this was being done to see whether the government can “urgently” do something to assist the students with genuine cases. Nzimande said he would provide the information to the cabinet, which would decide what to do to tackle the problem.

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

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