Professor Ahmed Bawa. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)
Professor Ahmed Bawa. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Student debt removal ‘will cause strain’

By Samkelo Mtshali Time of article published Jan 29, 2020

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Universities South Africa (Usaf) has warned that the government cannot afford to write off a burdensome R9 billion worth of historical student debt as it has already forked out close to R1bn towards clearing the debts of National Student Financial Aid Scheme-funded (NSFAS) students.

This warning comes in the wake of the South African Union of Students (Saus) lobbying for a national shutdown of universities across the country if their demands for, among others, students’ historical debt to be written off are not met.

Other demands include free registration for all postgraduate students and increased enrolment quotas at universities.

The union has called for the writing off of students’ historical debt through the allocation of a debt relief fund that would see student debt cleared.

It has also called for all students with historical debt to be allowed to register.

However, Usaf chief executive, Professor Ahmed Bawa, said that this would be a heavy burden on the government, which in March last year allocated R967million to NSFAS towards clearing debts owed by students funded by the financial aid scheme.

“The issue of historic debt is one that is not going to be resolved easily as the historic debt at the moment of non-NSFAS-funded students is in the region of R9bn. If that amount is wiped out without some sort of rational solution to it, what it would mean is that money owed to universities for maintenance, infrastructure development and improving the quality of the classrooms begins to be undermined,” Bawa said.

He added that as long as NSFAS-funded students signed the acknowledgement of debt forms, their debt would be covered by the government, whereas it would be extremely difficult for the state to conjure up R9bn owed to universities in the main by the “missing middle” who do not meet the criteria to qualify for NSFAS funding.

He said that the government’s promise of free education was a bursary model, under the Department of Higher Education and Training, which had been successful since being applied, with between 40% to 50% of students who entered university last year being covered by this bursary model.

Saus national executive member Bongani Mahlangu told eNCA yesterday that after having negotiated and come to an agreement, the department had gone behind their back and made changes.

“The negotiations we’ve been having with the department since last year have collapsed. We have negotiated and agreed on things with the department, and then when the department goes and makes the final decision on their own, they change everything.”

In a statement on the state of readiness of the Post School Education and Training Sector, Department of Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said they had undergone a process of quantifying the NSFAS’s historic debt in qualifying senior students registered for the 2018/2019 academic year.

“We have also worked with the university sector to keep fees at affordable levels, while substantially increasing the funding for poor and working-class students,” said Nzimande.

Kwena Moloto, the DA Student Organisation’s (Daso) national chairperson, said that despite some key issues raised by Saus, they opposed the union’s call for a national shutdown as it was “simply an attempt to gain political relevance”.

“The call for an increase in admissions rate at institutions that already lack sufficient resources to meet the demands of the student populace is a clear indication that these demands stem from populism, and not critical thought,” he said.

He added that Daso had deployed public representatives to institutions of higher learning, as well as running their Sakhingomso campaign, “to both assist students with registration as well as provide oversight on registration processes”.

Political Bureau

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