Student debt in South Africa is on the rise

March 17 2006

STUDENTS owe Eastern Cape Universities more than R100-million this year ? a debt which threatens to cripple operations in some institutions. Leading the pack is the newly merged Walter Sisulu University with a R94-million debt, followed by Fort Hare University at R6,3-million, while Rhodes University students owe R2,9- million.

Fort Hare was owed more than R78-million last year, while WSU and Rhodes refused to disclose last year?s debt figure. The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, figures for which were not available at the time of going to press, was owed R101,9-million at the end of July last year. NMMU spokesman Roslyn Baatjies said she could not give out the latest debt figures because registration was still under way and financial year-end transactions were still being completed. WSU spokesman Angela Church said the non-payment of fees hurt the institution?s cashflow. ?It is vital for the provision of quality education and service for student fees to be paid in full,? she said.

Debt recovery strategies ? like not permitting students to graduate if they still owed money, and not allowing them to register if they carried over outstanding fees from the previous academic year ? could be applied. However, she said the university also had a commitment towards needy students.

“Students with the academic ability should not be excluded from progressing. Every effort is made to procure financial assistance to ensure that (those) students are able to graduate,” Church said. Fort Hare has decided to challenge the national government to help fund students.

Fort Hare spokesman Luthando Bara said a letter had been sent to Education Minister Naledi Pandor asking her to make more bursaries and loans available to students there. Bara said the university was increasingly dependent on student fees and donations as declining government subsidies hurt investment in facilities and the development of qualified staff.

”Since the subsidy is only paid in the second term each year, income from student fees is crucial to funding university activities, especially in the first three months,” said Bara. The registration window period “ due to close on Friday “ had to be extended for some weeks to enable students to raise funds and pay their debt.

But student debt is not much of a problem at Rhodes University. Finance director Anton Vorster said only two per cent of last year’s debt was still outstanding. He said even its R2,9-million student debt was now being repaid, as all returning students had to settle their fees by the end of this month if they intended to further their studies at the university. ”In the case of non-returning students, if the debt remains unpaid, we will hand the matter over to attorneys and collect the money in a normal debt collection process,” Vorster said. ”Student debt has no detrimental impact on the running of the university at all, as our collection methods are very sound.”