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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Nzimande on student debt, financial exclusions and infrastructure backlogs

Student debt is growing in the university system. This is according Minister of Higher Education, Science And Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande during his address to members of the South African Student Union (SAUS) at their eighth National Elective Conference held at the University of Venda on Sunday.

Nzimande said it is extremely worrying to note that inequitable patterns of student success still prevail. He said this was especially true for African and coloured male students.

Adding that this category of students continue to be the least successful in the university system.

“There are four categories of affected students that have been identified.

“They include NSFAS [National Student Financial Aid Scheme] students, students who are recipients of other scholarships and bursaries, self-paying students – including the so-called ‘missing middle’ students, and international students,” said Nzimande.

The minister added that his department and higher education stakeholders have acknowledged that there have sometimes been delays in the processing of historic debt of NSFAS qualifying students. He said the main challenges are linked to administrative challenges in resolving the debt.

“The Department is working with NSFAS and institutions to ensure a speedy resolution of the processing of historic debt claims,” he said.

Inside Education has previously reported that student historic debt to universities has escalated to approximately R14 billion.

Analysts say this has caused a sustainability crisis in our higher education institutions.

According to the Universities South Africa (USAf), this crisis has been ongoing for decades and that it is now time for a government-led policy process that produces a long-term, sustainable solution.

READ: Historic debt: The crisis in student funding

At the time, USAf’s Chief Executive Officer Professor Ahmed Bawa said student debt cannot possibly be resolved at the institutional level.

“USAf must signal now, as we did signal in December 2017, that the long-term sustainability of this bursary programme is of deep concern to us,” said Bawa.

He added that the perennial challenge of the further accumulation of student debt accrued by students who fall outside of the NSFAS threshold in family income requires a government-led approach.

“As you are aware there has been significant growth in funding allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to support qualifying students: R12.3 billion in 2017/18 to R43 billion in 2021.

“In the current financial year an additional amount of R6.4 billion was allocated through reprioritisation within the department’s budget and the National Skills Fund to address the NSFAS shortfall,” said Nzimande.

READ: Higher Education budget vote: NSFAS gets more funds but shortage persist

He added that following a meeting he had with SAUS earlier this year, USAf has initiated a process to work towards a system-wide approach to the issue of student transcripts and certificates and outstanding fees.

The minister said his department has also requested from the USAf up to date information from all institutions which will contribute to the policy review process, and form part of the review of student financial aid.

Nzimande said currently in progress is the development of a policy framework for the regulation of university fees in order to ensure that fees are kept at affordable levels for all families that need assistance.

“These efforts in the long-term aim to ensure that going forward all students are able to access some form of financial support for their university studies. However, without substantial additional funding being available in the sector, student debt will continue to be a problem,” said the minister.

Adding that he understands that the issue of debt owed by students has led to higher education institutions withholding of academic records.

“I have had several engagements with universities on this matter. All institutions have agreed to provide a certificate of completion to potential employers where students have met all the requirements for graduation, but still have university debt,” said Nzimande.

Other Challenges

Nzimande said the issue of access in higher education institutions is multifaceted.

He said as much as financial access is the most pressing for students, he is also concerned that the other dimension of access is not getting adequate attention, “that of epistemological access – the type and form of knowledge that students have access to or are unable to access”.

“One of our key challenges facing out higher education system is that of the urgent necessity to transform the relations of knowledge production – especially the patriarchal, class and racialized nature of knowledge and its production in our country.

“This is a crucial dimension in the dismantling of barriers, through access to relevant, transformatory and liberating knowledge,” said the minister.

He added that another key dimension of dismantling barriers is that of ensuring that we build student centred and student friendly universities and other post school institutions. Institutions that are not student friendly constitute a serious barrier to effective financial and epistemological access, he said.

On the University of South Africa (Unisa)

Nzimande said his department also had to tackle the issue of poor throughput in distance education programmes.

He said Unisa also faces challenges in governance, management and the quality of higher education provision at this institution.

“As a result, I appointed a Ministerial Task Team to conduct a review of Unisa with a strategic focus on its mandate as an open and distance education institution. The mandate of the Task Team includes analysing the scope, capacity, systems and organizational structure in relation to the University’s mandate and mission.

He said the team will make recommendations on measures required to ensure that Unisa is strategically positioned as an institution with a clear mandate and mission supported by the necessary structures and capacity for a sustainable future.

Higher Education Infrastructure Backlogs

Nzimande said his department, together with the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), are facilitating a Student Housing Infrastructure Programme (SHIP) for the construction of student accommodation.

“Our aim is to address the shortage of student housing and accelerate the development of at least 300 000 beds over a ten-year period, and we are working towards delivering even more than this.

“As part of our development, the University of Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela University, University of North West and University of Western Cape, Sefako Makgatho University and University of Limpopo are the first beneficiaries of our SHIP Phase 1 developments.

“Phase 1 SHIP developments enabled an investment of about R3.5 billion, including the DBSA commitment of R1.6 million debt funding for 12 000 student beds. Phase 2 SHIP developments comprise of about 24 000 student beds of 12 institutions including six universities,” said Nzimande.

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