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On 24 March, officials from the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) appeared before the Fees Commission. Diane Parker, from the DHET, said that student debt has been increasing since 2012. Parker said, “We did an accounting of student debt which was owed to universities by National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students which had built up from 2013, 2014 and 2015.”
The Fees Commission, set up by President Jacob Zuma after #FeesMustFall protests in 2015 and 2016, is still investigating the feasibility of free higher education in South Africa. The Commission is headed by Judge Jonathan Heher.
According to Parker, R6.3 billion rand was owed by students to various institutions across the country in 2015. “We know we need to find
an effective solution for funding students who require financial support, and we need to find ways to improve funding to institutions. I don’t think there’s a doubt about that. How we manage that and how the policies that are put in place are still issues that have to be dealt with, and we really are hoping that this can be dealt with this year. We do believe once that is settled and we have a system in place for proper funding, we’re going to address the issue of the debt in the system and create a policy on how we manage that,” Parker added.
Parker said that a “culture of non-payment” has been developing since 2012. She said, “More recently, particularly [in] 2015 and 2016 in the wake of the #FeesMustFall campaign, institutions have been indicating that more and more students are defaulting on payments, and even in those institutions where the institutions believe the particular students have the abilityto pay.”
Firoz Patel, Deputy Director General of the DHET, believes that debt that cannot be recovered by universities should rather be written off. He said, “As long as you survive, you can cut your losses.”
Chairperson of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Sizwe Nxasana, also made submissions at the Commission on 23 March. According to Nxasana, the new Ikusasa Financial Aid programme will support poor students and decrease the dropout rate. Nxasana said that various projects at universities are underway and have raised almost R140 million for poor students. Nxasana believes that poor and “missing middle” students can be assisted with funding if NSFAS, the private sector, and the government work together.
The Commission is expected to conclude its work by the end of June this year.
Photo: Fezekile Msimang