Debt, COVID-19 financial woes threaten to end dreams of thousands of students

Many students don't qualify for NSFAS funding and Universities South Africa's CEO Ahmed Bawa said there needed to be more assistance for the so-called missing middle.

Prospective students at Wits University on 9 January 2018. Picture: EWN

JOHANNESBURG - At a time when many have lost parents to COVID-19 and breadwinners have been retrenched, Universities South Africa has acknowledged that paying outstanding debt will be a huge problem for students this year.

Finance Minister Tito Mboweni will be revealing government's Budget for this year on Wednesday, and the higher education sector is hoping there might be some relief for struggling students who are unable to resume their studies this year due to crippling financial burdens.

Many students don't qualify for NSFAS funding and Universities South Africa's CEO Ahmed Bawa said there needed to be more assistance for the so-called missing middle.

“It’s really up to universities to try to understand how to manage the situation without them wracking up billions and billions of rands of debt.”

At Wits University alone, the number of students who cannot register for this year before they pay 50% of their outstanding debt has quadrupled since last year and is now standing at over 8,000.

Students from various universities in the country shared their disappointment with Eyewitness News on condition that their identities be withheld.

"I can’t afford the fees. My mother is a domestic worker. It’s impossible for her to cover the outstanding fees. She was one of the retrenched workers because of the pandemic."

This is a post-graduate student from the University of KwaZulu-Natal. She wants to study further and obtain her Master’s degree in social work to broaden her chances of landing a job.

But she now needs to find R25,000 in order to register.

She's the first and the only one in her family to get a degree - her siblings and her mother are unemployed.

"I am very angry with the university. They are aware of the pandemic. It seems as if they don’t understand the struggle of being a black child when your mother has lost her job."

This 80% average undergrad Wits student is also unable to register for her second year in dentistry because she owes R34,000 in outstanding fees. In order to register, she needs to cough up 50% of that amount.

She's been given an extension to come up with the money, but that deadline expires on Monday.

"COVID-19 has affected everyone. It’s impossible to get a sponsor. Most of my family have lost jobs. If you apply for a loan, you do not get approval.”

This KwaZulu-Natal education student is R53,000 in the red. At this point, she wouldn’t even be able to cover the registration fee if she were lucky enough to get a sponsor to settle a portion of her outstanding debt.

"Government is unfair. Businesses have been getting money, but when it comes to education, they don’t give us anything. It’s devastating."

Her single mother is unemployed and the student has been trying to find a job.

"Unfortunately, because of COVID-19 and being poor, I don’t stand a chance."

This is the sad reality for many, like this Wits student who is also not able to register for her second year in dentistry because of outstanding debt.

She needs at least R17,000 to resume her studies.

“The university is not compassionate. I feel like they can do better. Just give students a chance."

Many students turn to government's bursary scheme NSFAS every year for financial support, but a large number of them don't get help and find themselves trapped in the so-called missing middle category.

Bawa pleaded with government to ensure the sustainability of tertiary education.

“We have to say to the Minister of Finance that we have to ensure that the current national student financial aid bursary programme is funded so that students who do qualify for financial aid, can continue to study.”

To add insult to injury, the Auditor-General found that NSFAS mismanaged R500 million of its funding during the last financial cycle - money that could have funded more students’ education.

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