Free higher education: Challenges of students with historic debts

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The announcement by President Jacob Zuma that South Africa would offer free higher education to the majority of its people was like the dawn of a new era for many students who were battling to complete their studies due to lack of funds.

One of those students is Bright Mdebele. At 23, Mdebele dropped out of university two years ago because he could not afford to continue with his studies. He was studying for a degree in education at the University of Johannesburg (UJ).

After completing his matric in 2013, Mdebele knew he wanted to be a teacher.

“I love education. I believe education is not something that you want to do. It’s something that is in you. It’s a calling,” says Mdebele.

So committed was Mdebele to becoming a teacher that when he realised he had missed the deadline for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) applications, he made another plan. He applied for a student loan at a bank.

“I was willing to do anything to get my degree. Even if it means being indebted.”

With a R36 000 loan now attached to him, Mdebele finally embarked on his journey to becoming a teacher. This was brought to a halt at the end of his second year when he could not afford to pay his fees. He had used some of the money from the previous year’s loan to pay for his registration fees but could not pay the rest.

He could not register for his third year without paying what he owed the university, R37 000. The student says his application to NSFAS for his second year had not been responded to. His application for his third year was rejected. Though he qualifies, there was not enough funds.

The bank was willing to give him another loan but his father, who had been the surety for the first loan could not afford to pay interest amounts on two loans.

“They said they would give me the money but the interest will increase. They wanted to know if the surety could afford it. He cannot.”

In 2016 and 2017, Mdebele stayed at home. He continued to apply for funding. For the 2017 academic year his application was once again rejected because of lack of funds.

But when the President announced free higher education for all students whose households earned less than R350 000, Mdebele thought his frustration would end. “I was excited. Thought to myself, finally I’m going to be a teacher.”

Now he is no longer certain.

On Tuesday he was among the hundreds of students queuing at UJ’s Auckland Park campuses. He wanted to know if his debt would be scrapped off to enable him to register if his NSFAS application comes back positive, which he now expects it will. He was told that he still needs pay off his debt before he can register. Should he not receive help with his debt, Mdebele says he is considering starting over at another institution.

NSFAS won’t write off historic debts

NSFAS says it will not be settling historic debt. “NSFAS will only settle student debt from the currently funded year onwards, those who owe universities or colleges and were not funded by NSFAS will have to settle their debt,” says Kagisho Mamabolo, NSFAS Spokesperson. NSFAS will announce the outcomes of the 2018 academic year application from Friday.

The spokesperson of the Department of Higher Education and Training, Madikwe Mabotha says though there are no guarantees, they will do their best to make sure that every student who qualifies for NSFAS support receives it, particularly those who were already in the system.

Mabotha also says it is unacceptable for students to be turned away due to historic debt and they have an agreement with universities to this end.

“Our position is that no one should be excluded because of historic debt,” says Mabotha.

He says students who find themselves in this predicament can contact the department.