Universities face being saddled with huge student debt as a new funding cap by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) threatens to exclude students from finding accommodation.
Accommodation at some universities costs between R46 000 and R149 000 per annum, far more than the R45 000 per annum offered by NSFAS for students approved for funding.
Former "white" universities including Stellenbosch, UCT, and the University of Witwatersrand offer accommodation ranging between R52 000 and R149 000, excluding meals, and depending on size and location.
Whereas in 2022 students were allowed by NSFAS to stay in residences that cost up to R5 900 per month, the amount was decreased and capped at only R45 000 across all universities in 2023.
Students fear this could lead to exclusions and another decrease in meal allowances could also see them face serious food insecurity.
Stellenbosch University’s chief operating officer, Professor Stan du Plessis said many rooms in residences, as well as private NSFAS-accredited accommodation cost more than R45 000 per year in 2023.
The university website showed that the cheapest residence was R46 000, while others cost between R51 000 and R61 000 per single room.
The NSFAS approved private accommodation, Nooitgedacht, costs R65 000 per annum.
Du Plessis said university management approached NSFAS for clarity on how the implied shortfall per student would be paid.
According to Du Plessis, NSFAS responded with an announcement that there would be a process of exemption from the cap, if required, and NSFAS would give priority with exemptions to university accommodation.
"A gap between the cost of accommodation and the bursary granted to a NSFAS student remains the student’s responsibility," said Du Plessis, adding that there was no guarantee that NSFAS would grant the exemptions.
University spokesperson Martin Viljoen said a contingency committee was set up with SU’s registrar Dr Ronel Retief as its chairperson, to consider ways in which they could support NSFAS students adversely affected by the cap on the housing allowance.
The committee is made up of representatives from the student accommodation office, student affairs (including student communities), student finance, development and alumni relations and the student representative council (SRC).
"Together we have identified, and are still in the process of considering various mechanisms to facilitate continued access to our institution," he added.
Students who were partially funded for their studies were encouraged to apply for top-up bursary funding by the University.
"Going forward, this would also apply to NSFAS-funded students who have a shortfall on their NSFAS housing allowance," said Du Plessis.
The UCT said it was also engaging internally and externally on the matter.
Rooms at the university’s residences cost between R61 000 and R149 000, depending on the location and services offered.
For example, a student sharing a double room pays up to R56 000, while another in a self-catering large bachelor flat at Philip Kgosana residence pays R149 000 per annum.
Students were now reluctant to commit to paying the shortfall as they said they could not even afford to pay registration fees.
The SRC at Stellenbosch University urged the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHE) to find an urgent solution as its offices were flooded with students struggling to find accommodation.
SRC vice-chairperson William Sezoe said even before the registration process got under way, the office was inundated with enquiries regarding accommodation.
"We have seen an influx of students. Some rock up without having received a confirmation of a place and the university has a limited bed space of about 2 600.
"Now there's the issue of the accommodation funding cap for NSFAS approved students that's created a problem.
"Some private residences have asked students to sign a debt acknowledgement form and students cannot pay that difference because affordability is the main reason they are being funded by NSFAS,“ said Sezoe.
After staying at the 48-hour temporary accommodation offered by the university, some students found themselves with no place to go this go.
A first year student from Brakpan, Sibusiso Mthetho, who was waiting for funding confirmation from NSFAS, and six other fellow students found themselves on the streets.
"Luckily some ANC members came to our rescue and have offered us a place to stay in Kayamandi. We are grateful, but if we don't find accommodation on campus it will be difficult to attend lectures," said Mthetho.
He said even if his application for accommodation funding was to be approved, he feared that he wouldn't be able to move into residence.
Viljoen said accommodation has been allocated to most students and there was not a single available bed in residences at this stage.
"A list of 400 accredited beds within the NSFAS cap was provided to students, and all of these places have since been taken up,“ added Viljoen.
He said some external donors who are already involved in supporting NSFAS students had agreed to pay the top-up required for their students to stay in private accredited accommodation above the cap.
The committee had also identified limited funding that would be channelled towards students, added Viljoen.
The University of Western Cape (UWC) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) said they were not affected by the cap.
UWC said residence fees ranged between R24 000 and R45 000 per annum, while CPUT said the NSFAS proposed cap would not affect nor exclude any students.
"CPUT has standing contracts with service providers which have set rental agreements and this will not affect students," said CPUT spokesperson, Lauren Kansley.
The Department of Higher Education refused to respond to questions on the shortfall and how it would fund it.
The South African Union of Students (SAUS) spokesperson, Asive Dlanjwa said the union was determined to ensure that no “poor working class” student was excluded from access to study and accommodation.
“We will ensure that solutions will be found,” said Dlanjwa, adding that a meeting was held with NSFAS and the DHE on Friday to iron out the issue.
NSFAS was not immediately available to confirm the meeting and plans to meet the shortfall.