“Higher Education Department not able to support institutions in clearing student debt”

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Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande says the department is not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all student debt of fee-paying students.

Nzimande says the department had budget cuts in 2020 and 2021. The Minister was responding to a letter sent by the South African Union of Students (SAUS) last week Wednesday.

SAUS had demanded among others clearance of historical debts for all students so they can register.

Nzimande says the historic debt of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (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 underway. NSFAS funding to students is only released once students are registered and confirmed for funding. It is also important to note that NSFAS will receive its first tranche from the fiscus on 1 April 2021 in line with National Treasury’s processes,” says Nzimande.

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Increase the number of student admissions

SAUS also demanded an increase in students’ enrolment quotas to allow admission of matriculants, including 20 000 students from UNISA.

The Minister says the Department of Higher Education and Training works together with institutions to agree on an enrolment plan, which is outlined in a Ministerial Statement.

“The current enrolment plan covers the period 2020 to 2025. It is critical that all institutions adhere as closely as possible to their enrolment plans, as they guide both the funding of the system, as well as ensure that
institutions have the capacity to support quality education for their students. Should the system expand beyond the agreed enrolments it will be unable to provide effective teaching and learning. The matter relating to UNISA’s decision to reduce its enrolments based on over enrolments in 2020 is currently in the courts,” says Nzimande.

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Free registration and free quality education

SAUS demanded free registration for all students during the 2021 academic year, stating that it rejects the imposition of minimum initial payment. They also want a zero percent fee increase for the 2021 academic year, saying that student leaders were not consulted when the decision was taken.

Nzimande reponded: “Fee consultations take place at the 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 in order to meet their operational commitments and their academic responsibilities.”

SAUS also wants free quality education for the poor and the “missing middle”, saying the tax increase from 14% to 15% is meant to cover free education.

Nzimande says that the registration period has been extended for two weeks, to ensure that all first-time entering students, in particular those who qualify for NSFAS, are able to register.

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