951 Wits student demonstrate at the institution's premises in Braamfontein. They are not satisfied with the managenent's reasoning concerning NSFAS for the first year students. 210115 Picture: Boxer Ngwenya

Johannesburg - Financial aid that was supposed to help finance poor student’s studies at Wits University last year has been converted into loans, preventing the students from continuing with their studies.

As a result, the students are angry and their leaders say there is no telling what havoc will be unleashed if student protest action continues because of this.

On Wednesday afternoon, students protested at the main Braamfontein campus, accusing the university’s management of marginalising the poor and vulnerable.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Professor Adam Habib accepted the students’ memorandum.

In a nutshell, the issue centres on the shortfall in National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding.

More than 800 NSFAS-funded students are carrying over “debt” from last year’s unpaid study fees and in addition to this, they cannot register this year because they cannot afford to pay the R9 300 fee upfront – an amount that was also supposed to be covered by the NSFAS.

The university had tried to meet the students halfway and said NSFAS students could pay half of the fee for their registration to be processed.

But for many students, who applied for financial aid precisely because they are poor, even half the registration fee is unaffordable.

Habib admitted that the university took on more NSFAS students than there was available funding for.

The intake was based on a precedence set the previous years.

Due to a spate of violent protests across university campuses when the 2014 academic year started, NSFAS said universities including Wits could take on more students and additional money would be allocated later. The money was later provided. The same thing happened in 2013.

Wits took on 828 more students last year at a cost of R43.5 million, only to be later told by NSFAS that there was no money available for the additional students.

As it stands, these students cannot continue with their studies this year and because of the unpaid fees from last year, they are obliged to sign an acknowledgement of debt, legally binding them to cough up last year’s fees that were supposed to be paid by NSFAS.

At a media briefing yesterday following a meeting with the students’ leadership, Habib said he and the Wits chief financial officer met NSFAS executives earlier this month to discuss the problem.

“They said to us they’d look at the possibility of trying to assist and find us the money,” Habib said.

“It does look like some monies will be made available… we hope something like 50 percent. For the other 50 percent we will dip in and go to our council and ask our council to utilise the funds that it has and make up the remaining R23m”

NSFAS national spokesman Kagisho Mamabolo, however, said the scheme’s guidelines were clear in that they only paid out fees for students who had been accepted for funding and were in the system.

“Wits acknowledged that they created a problem because they broke the rules,” Mamabolo said.

“Wits is supposed to help clear these students’ debt so they can apply (for 2015 funding) properly and we’ll help them from there. We expect Wits to help those 828 students,” he said.

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The Star