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SA public universities say the millions owed by students will impact on long-term financial stability and operations

The Cape Argus visited the Cape Town City CPUT campus to see how registrations were going and to speak to some of the students. Pictured are students in the Multi-Purpose Hall. Picture: David Ritchie

The Cape Argus visited the Cape Town City CPUT campus to see how registrations were going and to speak to some of the students. Pictured are students in the Multi-Purpose Hall. Picture: David Ritchie

Published Feb 24, 2022

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SOUTH African public universities have agreed to allow students with historical debt to register for the 2022 academic year, but claim that this financial strain would have an impact on the university’s finances in the long run.

The higher education crisis which has crippled the country led to students embarking on protest actions to pressure universities into allowing them to register as classes had already resumed.

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In response to the protest actions following engagements with the Students Representative Council, the University of Cape Town (UCT) on Monday announced that it would be removing the current fee blocks on student registrations for the 2022 academic year for all students who were eligible to re-register on academic grounds.

Sol Plaatje University said students in debt were required to sign an Acknowledgement Of Debt (AOD) form and supply the universities with supporting documents before they were allowed to register for the current academic year. Students who are owing R50 000 or less would have their debt carried over, while those who owed above the threshold would be required to pay 10% of the debt and sign the AOD form.

Stellenbosch University (SU) students with historical debt are required to apply for assistance to the Student Debt Working Group (SDWG). To date, 252 students have applied to the SDWG for assistance.

“These applications are assessed on a case-by-case basis with input from the Undergraduate Bursaries Office, Postgraduate Office, Student Fees as well as the SRC, who are all represented on the working group. Of the students who applied for assistance, 81 have already been assisted to register, with another 93 cases being assessed for possible assistance,” the university said in a letter to the students.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Dr Blade Nzimande said student debt has grown in South Africa’s university sector significantly in recent years.

“The unaudited data showed that an estimated R6.1 billion was owed by students at the start of the 2021 academic year.”

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UCT said the cumulative fee debt stands at R317.8 million.

SU indicated that at the end of 2020, the historical debt was around R367m. The university’s spokesperson Martin Viljoen said the outstanding debt for the graduating class of 2021 stood at R16.3m.

Sol Plaatje University spokesperson Kashini Maistry said the audited and published University Annual Financial Statements for the 2020 financial year indicated the total outstanding student debt amounted to R58.2m (2014 to 2020).

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“For the 2021 financial year, the gross outstanding student debt amount recorded is R65m. The latter figure is unaudited and subject to any audit adjustments that may be required during the year-end processes,” she said.

Maistry said the university deemed it necessary to engage proactively with potential private sector funders.

“Arrangements could be made with students to start paying their debt as soon as they are employed.The university recently approached two private sector funders regarding possible funding towards historic debt,” she said.

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Viljoen said that SU was committed to the long-term financial sustainability of the institution but also they remained committed to working with the higher education sector towards finding systemic and sustainable solutions to ensure financial sustainability for universities and access to higher education for students.

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