Universities SA (Usaf) has told Parliament that public universities are owed more than R16 billion in student debt, and that it costs these higher education institutions about R1 billion to service that debt every year.
In recent years, the country has seen protests by students demanding that historical debt be scrapped and that they be allowed to register to continue with their studies.
Last year, the SA Union of Students (Saus) called for a national shutdown of universities because of these same demands, which have been repeated by the union and other student organisations every year.
In 2019, the department of higher education made R967 million available to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) to settle historic debt owed to universities by 52 514 students.
Head of operations and sector support at Usaf, Linda Meyer, this week told the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology that historical debt had increased from R14 billion in 2019 to R16.5 billion at present.
Meyer said:It’s really about universities being financially exposed and [there are] remaining growing concerns. We can’t have a situation where universities are facing the same fate as SAA. We need to find very tangible solutions to address our student debt issue.
She added that a “systemic impediment” was that these higher education institutions serviced the debt at a cost of about R1.2 billion a year.
“This is money that’s being taken from important academic programmes across the academy,” she pointed out.
Meyer also told the committee that 120 000 students could not graduate because they owed universities about R7 billion in total.
This, she said, was antithetic to the higher education ethos and system of producing the necessary skills for economic growth, and contributed to the skills shortage in the country.
“On the back of this, we’re also faced with challenges of the highest youth unemployment rate in the world and a growing percentage of university graduates are unable to be absorbed into the labour market. Many systemic challenges relating to [indebted] students being unable to access university records are contributing to this.”
Meyer said there was a need for a sustainable solution to the student debt crisis.
Last year, Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande told Saus that, while the department was aware that many families struggled to pay university fees, his department was “not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all the debt of fee-paying students”.
However, students who are funded by Nsfas are allowed to register if they sign an acknowledgment of debt form.
In his maiden budget speech last week, Finance Minister Enoch Godongwan announced that Nsfas would be allocated R32.6 billion and that any further shortfalls would be funded within the baseline of the department of higher education, science and technology.
Meyer told the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology that, according to research, students funded by Nsfas – “contrary to popular belief” – did better at universities than students who were not funded by the scheme.
“We ascribe this primarily to the fact that they don’t have insecurity about their financial stability within the university sector,” she said.We need to get commitment from government to find the money to deal with this debt issue. It can’t be left to universities.
She added that students faced severe stress every year as they battled to cope with their debt burden.
“We really need to accept that when we invest in our students in higher education, it’s an investment in the economy. It isn’t a cost – it’s something that’s critical for us to turn the face of our economic stability around within our country,” she said.
The University of KwaZulu-Natal, which has been battling with student protests over these issues in recent weeks, told the portfolio committee that, at the end of last year, it was owed R2.2 billion in student debt.
However, university vice-chancellors have long argued that writing off student debt would lead to the collapse of these higher education institutions.
VACCINATIONS ON CAMPUS
Meyer also told the committee that 85% to 90% of university staff and more than 70% of the student population had been vaccinated against Covid-19.
“It’s important for us to mention that, as Usaf, in the absence of a government policy or department of higher education directive, we obviously can’t instruct universities to act in a particular manner. They have well-established governance structures within the specific institutions that we must respect.
“If we want a sense of normality, we must revert to science and do what’s best for us. We must ensure that, in highly populous areas on our university campuses, we do whatever’s practical and required in terms of our legislative parameters in the Occupational Health and Safety Act to safeguard our staff and students at our public institutions. [Not doing so] equates to a criminal offence,” said Meyer.
Several higher education institutions have adopted policies that no staff or students will be permitted on to their campuses if they are not vaccinated.
Student leadership at the Durban University of Technology told the portfolio committee that some students slept outside the institution because they were not allowed to access their residences because they had not been vaccinated.