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Cape Town - A huge shortfall in government funding for bursaries is threatening to prevent tens of thousands of “academically deserving” young South Africans from furthering their studies or entering a university this year.
The R8.2 billion allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which dispenses bursaries, is inadequate because of the massive demand for funding in 2014.
This is according to Chief Mbizela, the Department of Education’s chief director of higher education policy. He was quoted in the Sunday Independent in response to news that 3 000 poor University of Johannesburg students were in danger of being “financially excluded”. The NSFAS admits it needs at least double that amount to accommodate all deserving applicants.
At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) a new policy aimed at curbing student debt, which the university largely attributes to the NSFAS shortfalls, has added insult to injury for poorer students. Over a number of years the university has run up a debt of nearly R300 million in outstanding fees. The new policy demands that students pay registration fees up front and settle debt before being allowed to register for the new year.
On Wednesday, frustrations boiled over at the Bellville campus where a group of students, some of whom were turned away at registration, picketed. Supported by the student representative council (SRC), they disrupted the registration process by blockading the campus’s main entrance.
“We want our institution to be sustainable, so that our children can come here, too,” SRC president Mbongiseni Mbatha said. “But it is not fair to threaten the exclusion of around 10 000 underprivileged students just like that. In many cases, the students were not even aware that they would be shown the door when they came to register this week.”
One of the issues is that students were told only in December of the policy change. Another issue, Mbatha explains, is that the university was late in billing students for residence fees last year. The NSFAS confirms that these bills came through after it had settled its account with the university.
An eleventh-hour meeting between university management and the SRC on Wednesday has seen agreements to give respite to “deserving students”.
CPUT spokesman Thamsanqa Nkwanyane listed the agreements:
* All returning and new students who have no outstanding debt and have NSFAS awards for tuition and residence will be allowed to register without paying up front.
* Students who are in “excellent” academic standing, will be allowed to register with “any contribution they can afford”. This is, however, applicable only if they have no outstanding debt and are willing to sign a debt arrangement for settling of their 2014 fees.
* Students who do not have any outstanding debt will be allowed to register and pay the upfront payment according to the agreed formula, up until the end of March. Failure to pay the upfront payment will lead to deregistration.
Yet, news of these amendments has not filtered down to many students faced with the crisis of being denied registration.
Siphahle Nomngangam, 22, is from Dutywa in the Eastern Cape. After a few weeks back home, he travelled to Cape Town alone to continue with his second year in multimedia technology at CPUT. He is the first person in his family to be afforded the chance of going to university, and passed all his first-year courses.
When he tried to register, he was told he needed to pay a R5 400 fee. Failing this, he would have to vacate his temporary residence accommodation this morning.
“I am seeing my dreams slip away before my eyes. How must I phone my parents and tell them this? I will have to go back to the Eastern Cape because I have no money to live in Cape Town and look for a job. Maybe one day I will be able to come back, but who knows.”
But, CPUT vice-chancellor Prins Nevhutalu said that students such as Nomngangam were not the intended victims of the new policy: “We wanted to weed out those undesirable students – the ones who had not paid for three years, the ones who fail time and again.”
He admitted to an administrative glitch where the university had thrown students into debt by billing them late for residence fees. Pressed on this point, Nevhutalu conceded that these students would be allowed to register and pay back their “debts” later.
“But the fundamental issue is that the Treasury has systematically, for years, reduced the amount of support for tertiary institutions. Nor is there enough money being made available for supporting capable students from underprivileged backgrounds,” he said.
“This has resulted in a greater burden being placed on students via fees, fees which we have seen increase at a rate which is well above inflation.”
Yet, apart from being under-resourced, the NSFAS mismanaged the funds at its disposal by not having proper mechanisms to identify the most indigent and needy students, Nechutalu said.