Debt trap: SA students owe US$400 million in university fees

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THE South African government is working on a new funding model for the nation’s university students, amid findings that majority of current college students and recent graduates are choking in debt.

Most households in South Africa struggle to meet university education and rely on Government funding and bursaries from. As many as 8,000 university students were financially excluded in 2021 alone, according to pressure group Global Citizen.

Students in the ‘missing middle’ income bracket most affected

Presenting his departmental budget last week, Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande indicated that an estimated R6.1 billion (US$400 million) was owed by students at the start of the 2021 academic year.

In the absence of significant funding from Treasury, South African universities are heavily reliant on tuition and residence fee income for operational needs. Despite that students are owing universities an increasing amount each year, Nzimande in February announced an inflation-linked rise in college fees.

But last week, Nzimande revealed that 56.2% of students owed universities less than R10,000; 32.9% owed between R10,000 and R50,000, while 10.9% owed more than R50,000.

As such, his department is working on a comprehensive, new funding model workable for both universities and the students.

“As part of the development of our comprehensive student funding model, through the ministerial task team on student funding, we are engaging both the public and private components of the financial sector to come up with a funding model to support students in the ‘missing middle’ income bracket and post-graduate students who cannot secure funding from the National Research Foundation,” Nzimande said.

Govt chases alternative sources of funding

The new model will have to pass through Cabinet in July, where it might be altered before final approval.

Nzimande said while Government already funds a chunk of the costs of taking a South African citizen through university, alternative sources of funding were being explored to protect students wallowing in debt, while also ensuring that institutions can remain viable.

Official statistics reveal that accumulated gross student debt as of the end of December 2020 stood at a massive R16.5 billion. This amount is increasing each year, and it included students who have exited university but still carry a debt.

In early 2021, Nzimande announced that the National Treasury would decrease its contribution to the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), but the country’s first year students were not able to benefit from it until early 2022.

Apartheid policies still haunting Rainbow nation

South Africa’s youth movements have been fighting for the right to affordable education since apartheid, and the struggle continues.

In 1976, Black South African school children protested to break the barriers created by the racist apartheid apartheid government which limited access to quality education by young Black people.

Education is essential for improving access to employment opportunities, economic development, and bringing poverty to an end. Moreover, access to quality education is one of the United Nations’ Global Goals, inasmuch as it is also a human right.

Previous fees increases attracted protests among students. In 2015, students movements led a #FeesMustFall strike which crippled universities and brought learning to a standstill.

Apart from demanding a reduction in college fees, the students also demanded that Government scales up its investment in tertiary education.

Another #FeesMustFall could be loading…

The protests forced the Government of Jacob Zuma to back off from further fee increases, with virtually no university fee increases in 2016.

Another successful outcome of the #FeesMustFall protests was that the formation of the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training. Its role it is to find and create opportunities for free education at tertiary institutions.

In March 2021, students at public universities protested after thousands of students were denied registration for the 2021 academic year because they owed tuition fees from the previous year.

It remains to be seen if another #FeesMustFall wave of protests will erupt. A study of the trend of the national students protests show that such confrontations have been occuring more frequently since 2015, pointing to the growing frustration among the youth.


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