'We can't afford to clear student debt or support 0% fee increment': Blade Nzimande

15 March 2021 - 15:29 By nonkululeko njilo
The department of higher education and training cannot afford to clear historic student debt owed to institutions totalling nearly R10bn, nor can it support the call for a zero percent fee increment for the 2021 academic year, minister Blade Nzimande said at the weekend. File photo.
The department of higher education and training cannot afford to clear historic student debt owed to institutions totalling nearly R10bn, nor can it support the call for a zero percent fee increment for the 2021 academic year, minister Blade Nzimande said at the weekend. File photo.
Image: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

The department of higher education & training cannot afford to clear historic student debt owed to institutions amounting to nearly R10bn, nor can it support the call for a zero percent fee increment for the 2021 academic year, minister Blade Nzimande said at the weekend.

He was responding to a long list of demands made by the South African Union of Students (SAUS), which among other things called for the scrapping of debt of all students to ensure smooth registration processes.

“The department is not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all student debt of fee-paying students. We are aware that there are many students whose families struggle to keep up with payments, and many families who have also been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“However, given the difficult fiscal situation, all government departments, including the department of higher education & training, have been subject to budget reductions in 2020 and 2021,” said Nzimande.

The minister said he was aware that many institutions were trying their best to ensure that needy students received necessary support so they could register.

It was unrealistic to assist all students, as institutions also had to survive, he conceded.

“However, institutions also have to remain financially sustainable to continue to operate effectively, and financial decisions are made at the level of university councils. The historic debt of NSFAS-qualifying students is being addressed through a process between NSFAS and institutions. NSFAS-qualifying students with historic debt are able to register when they sign an acknowledgment of debt (AOD) form, while the process is under way,” the minister said. 

This follows continued protests which claimed the life of a bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba, on March 10. Nzimande said he was “deeply distressed” by the death.  

SAUS also demanded a zero percent fee increment as it claimed not to have been consulted on proposed fee hikes, a demand which Nzimande said the government could not fulfil.

“Fee consultations take place at institutional level. In addition, student leaders are represented on university councils, where budgeting and fee decisions are taken. For the 2021 academic year, the department and universities have reached another fee compact to ensure fee increases are kept at affordable levels and to ensure the sustainability of universities. 

“All institutions rely on student fees for their core operating income and additional funding is not available from government to support a zero percent fee increase. Institutions have to remain financially sustainable to meet their operational commitments and academic responsibilities,” the minister said. 

The call for free quality education for the poor and the missing middle was also echoed by the union, which suggested that the government increase VAT by 1% to meet this demand.  

“Government has committed to providing fully subsidised support to students from poor and working class backgrounds and has been doing so since 2018 through the NSFAS,” said Nzimande. 

He added that his department would be doing urgent work to review the government's funding policy. This was to examine its overall affordability and sustainability.   

The cabinet has approved additional funds for NSFAS amid funding shortfalls. 

The government would now spend R42.1bn on the scheme this year, up by nearly R7bn from the budget of nearly R35bn in 2020 - which was already more than the R32bn the year before.

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