Higher education department not in a 'financial position' to clear student debt - Blade Nzimande

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Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande
Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande
PHOTO: Thulani Mbele/Gallo Images, Sowetan
  • The higher education department is not in a position to clear historical student debt, Minister Blade Nzimande says.
  • He has responded to a list of demands from the South African Union of Students.
  • Students have vowed to shut down 26 institutions.

The higher education department is not in a position to scrap historical student debt, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation Blade Nzimande said in a statement on Sunday.

He was responding to a list of demands from the South African Union of Students (SAUS).

The union has vowed to bring all institutions to a standstill through mass protest action at 26 universities.

On Monday morning, students were out on the streets of Johannesburg and outside several campuses across the country from around 06:00.

SAUS president Sibusiso Thwala told News24 that an urgent meeting with student representative councils (SRCs) and the deputy minister had been convened. It was there that the union submitted the list of demands.

"Following robust, extensive engagements, we reject the response by the minister and deputy minister, and the lack of urgency to resolve the urgency of these issues…

"We have decided to shut down all 26 universities from Monday. All university SRCs have supported this decision unanimously. This shutdown will continue until our demands have been met," he said.

The list was submitted to Nzimande on 10 March, and included a request to clear historical debt for all students to ensure smooth registration.

He said: 

The Department of Higher Education and Training 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 fee payments, and indeed 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 and Training, have been subject to budget reductions in 2020 and 2021," Nzimande said.

While institutions are doing what they can to accommodate students in need, they also have to remain financially sustainable, the minister added.

"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 acknowledgement of debt (AOD) form, while the process is under way."

'Fee compact' reached

Nzimande added that first-time entering students would be able to register, following the commitment to reprioritise funding from the department to address the NSFAS shortfall for 2021.

He also added that payment plans for students who had fee debt, registration and minimum initial payments were determined at an institutional level, in line with council-determined financial policies. NSFAS-qualifying students are not expected to make upfront payments.

In its memorandum, the union also demanded a zero percent fee increase for 2021.

"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 in order to meet their operational commitments and their academic responsibilities," Nzimande said.

The minister added that "the demand for student funding is significant".

He said: 

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. The Department of Higher Education and Training will be doing urgent work to review the current funding policy of government, to examine its overall affordability and sustainability.

"This will also entail examining the funding requirements to support missing middle and postgraduate students," he said.

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