Stakeholders welcome limited student debt write-off

The allocation by the South African government of nearly ZAR1 billion (US$69 million) towards the settling of the debt to universities owed by 52,514 current higher education students funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has been welcomed by students and other stakeholders.

Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor announced on 24 March that ZAR967 million would be allocated to wipe out historical debts owed by 52,514 NSFAS-funded students who were registered for the 2018 academic year.

She said the contribution confirms the government’s sensitivity towards the plight of students from poor and working-class families.

The allocation is aimed at students previously funded by NSFAS before funding to the scheme was significantly increased in 2018, allowing more students to access the fund.

Long-term sustainability

Last month, parliament heard from Universities South Africa (USAf), an association of public universities, that South African universities were owed ZAR9 billion in outstanding fees.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of USAf, told parliament the debt was a “huge dent in the long-term sustainability of the university system” and required a national discussion.

“It’s not simply something that we can wish away,” Bawa said.

At the start of the academic year, students at several universities embarked on protest action, calling for their debt to be scrapped because it meant that students who owed money were effectively being excluded from the 2019 registration process.

Pandor said the allocation was the first phase of an assessment of the debt owed to universities.

“We are aware that there will be some students who entered the university system prior to the new scheme being implemented in 2018, who will continue to be funded through NSFAS on the pre-2018 funding model,” the minister said.

Pandor said her department plans to provide funding to NSFAS during the 2019 academic year to clear that debt and expects that all students funded through the old scheme – which set qualification for NSFAS funding at an annual household income threshold of ZAR122,000 – to have exited the system by the 2022 academic year.

The minister’s announcement has been welcomed by most student bodies.

“It is a good thing,” said Moipone Mhlongo, secretary general of the South African Students Congress (SASCO), the largest university student movement in Africa.

“What we would like is to see those funds going back as far as 2014 to help students who can’t get their degrees because of debt,” she told University World News. “There are those who participated in the Fees Must Fall movement, who are right now suffering from student debt.”

TVET colleges

Mhlongo said student debt among students attending the country’s 50 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges also needed to be tackled.

South African Union of Students spokesperson Thabo Shingange also welcomed Pandor’s decision as a step closer to actualising fee-free higher education, particularly for senior students.

“While we understand the number of beneficiaries to be reasonably high, we seek solutions to the historic debt trap that operates systematically and affects many students who are not beneficiaries of NSFAS but who are from missing middle backgrounds,” he said in a statement.

Congress of South African Students President John Macheke was quoted by Eye Witness News as saying: “Most of the students in higher learning institutions are students that come from poor homes and disadvantaged backgrounds. It is indeed a great honour that at least students will get paid.”


Responses to Pandor’s announcement on Facebook and Twitter were mixed, with several users pointing to the failure of NSFAS to pay living allowances and book allowances to certain students. Several users also suggested that the announcement was motivated by the national elections due to be held on 8 May.

“Wish elections can be every year,” said Paul Motshipi Ramalepe in a Facebook post.

Pink Nail Bar Za said on Twitter: “#NSFAS can't pay students but they promise to pay off debts. They're trying to win your votes. We were promised free education. We still don't have it.”

The chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training, Connie September, welcomed the announcement which she said was an indication of a commitment by the Department of Higher Education and Training, following its recent appearance before the National Assembly, to discuss its plan to address grievances raised by the sector.

September said the minister’s response was true testimony that round-table engagement should remain the preferred option by students to resolve matters as opposed to destroying infrastructure.