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‘Rising student debt a big worry’

“Our annual budget was R1.5bn last year. We are thin on the ground and there are lots of competing demands on that budget’”

PRESIDENT Cyril Ramaphosa has insisted that the government will continue to provide billions of rand to students at universities.

However, he has warned that the issue of “the missing middle” and student debt was also a problem. He was addressing the South African National Editors’ Forum and parliamentary journalists at Tuynhuis.

Ramaphosa said the turmoil engulfing universities at the start of each year warranted serious attention, adding that many young people continued to face the challenge of not being readmitted each year for a number of reasons – one of them being debt.

“We have moved mountains and seas to ensure that young people get free education. A few years ago we used to spend R12billion to support NSFAS. It is now R30bn. We are not letting up on this,” he said.

The president spoke of the urgent need to address historical debt, adding that this often led to students being frustrated and subsequently to the burning of universities.

Ramaphosa also emphasised the need for the government to focus on the pass rate of the students it was financially supporting.

Speaking during a debate in the National Assembly, the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande, said the ANC-led government was proud it would be spending R35bn in 2020 through NSFAS, supporting over 700000 students in universities and TVET colleges.

“All NSFAS-qualifying students do not have to pay any upfront registration fees, and if they have debt, they don’t have to pay upfront but only to sign acknowledgement of debt. In 2017 and 2018 we also provided support to poor and missing middle students through the fee adjustment or ‘gap’ grant for students in the family income category of up to R600000,” he said.

Nzimande maintained that his department had worked with tertiary institutions to address the specific problems and challenges experienced at institutions.

“We wish to particularly condemn the violence and destruction that accompanied some of the protests. No matter how legitimate the complaints are, let’s protect property and life in our institutions,” Nzimande said.

Earlier, the higher education portfolio committee was briefed by some universities that were embroiled in student protests over registration and accommodation.

They informed MPs of how they each handled the student demands.

Briefing the committee, University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) vice-chancellor Professor Nana Poku told the MPs that the protests resulted in R31million in damage to property this year.

UKZN chief financial officer Nontuthuko Mbhele said that at the heart of the disruptions and violent protests had been a key demand for financial clearance concessions.

“In the main, students demanded that all students from households below R350000 should be registered without making payments for registration fees and towards their debt,” Mbhele said.

She told the MPs that debt at UKZN had grown from R600m recorded in 2010 to R1.7bn at the end of last year.

Mbhele also said the financial concession made by the university to students’ demands meant that the university had decided not to collect in excess of R1bn debt during registration.

University of Fort Hare (UFH) vice-chancellor Sakhela Buhlungu said his institution had not applied financial exclusion in the past five years, but student debt came under the spotlight in their assessment as management.

“Our annual budget was R1.5bn last year. We are thin on the ground and there are lots of competing demands on that budget,” Buhlungu said.

UFH’s chief financial officer Nielesh Ravgee said the institution’s student debt had increased from R323m in 2015 and stood at R639m.

“If we do not recover fees, it has a major impact on cash flow and our budget,” Ravgee said.

UWC acting rector Professor Vivienne Lawack said they had lost two days due to student disruptions over registrations and accommodation.

“Similar to all institutions, we want to acknowledge that we understand the anxiety and effect that uncertainty has on our students, whether you will be cleared and accommodated,” Lawack said.

UWC’s director of finance Abduraghman Regal said they did not exclude students on financial grounds, but looked at the academic viability of students on a case-by-case basis.

He said they had to deal with student debt, which had risen to R396m. Regal also noted that they still had significant “missing middle” students. “We have to focus on that cohort of students,” he said.

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