Student debt is growing in the university system. This is according Minister of Higher Education, Science And Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande during his address to members of the South African Student Union (SAUS) at their eighth National Elective Conference held at the University of Venda on Sunday.
Nzimande said it is extremely worrying to note that inequitable patterns of student success still prevail. African, coloured and male students are least successful in the university system
There are four categories of affected students identified: NSFAS students; students who are recipients of other scholarships and bursaries; self-paying students (including the so-called “missing middle” students; and international students. It is acknowledged that there have sometimes been delays in the processing of historic debt of NSFAS qualifying students linked to administrative challenges in resolving the debt. The Department is working with NSFAS and institutions to ensure a speedy resolution of the processing of historic debt claims.
Nzimande said Indeed, the issue of access is multifaceted. Much as financial access is the most pressing for students, I am concerned that the other dimension of access is not getting adequate attention, that of epistemological access – the type and form of knowledge that students have access to or are unable to access
One of our key challenges facing out higher education system is that of the urgent necessity to transform the relations of knowledge production – especially the patriarchal, class and racialized nature of knowledge and its production in our country. This is a crucial dimension in the dismantling of barriers, through access to relevant, transformatory and liberating knowledge. Another key dimension of dismantling barriers is that of ensuring that we build student centred and student friendly universities and other post school institutions. Institutions that are not student friendly constitute a serious barrier to effective financial and epistemological access.
I understand that there have been concerns about the withholding of academic records of students who have outstanding fees by institutions. I have had several engagements with universities on this matter. All institutions have agreed to provide a certificate of completion to potential employers where students have met all the requirements for graduation, but still have university debt.
The Department, working with USAf, has requested up to date information from all institutions which will contribute to the policy review process, and form part of the review of student financial aid.
The development of a policy framework for the regulation of university fees in order to ensure that fees are kept at affordable levels for all families that need assistance, is also underway. These efforts in the long-term aim to ensure that going forward all students are able to access some form of financial support for their university studies. However, without substantial additional funding being available in the sector, student debt will continue to be a problem.
This important elective conference takes place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic with government restrictions on attending gatherings which compelled me to address you virtually
The conference theme is very important and timely, as we all grapple with challenges of access. As you know my department has been tasked to come up with a comprehensive student funding model, including dealing with the issue of student debt.
We also have to tackle the issue of poor throughput in distance education programmes.
There has also been reports of challenges in governance, management and the quality of higher education provision at this institution. As a result, I appointed a Ministerial Task Team to conduct a review of UNISA with a strategic focus on its mandate as an open and distance education institution. The mandate of the Task Team includes analyzing the scope, capacity, systems and organizational structure in relation to the University’s mandate and mission. The team will make recommendations on measures required to ensure that UNISA is strategically positioned as an institution with a clear mandate and mission supported by the necessary structures and capacity for a sustainable future. I am looking forward to receiving the report of this Task Team very soon. The Department of Higher Education and Training is implementing the University Capacity Development Programme to contribute towards building a university system that is equitable and focused on student success, focusing on building the capacity of academic staff and transforming the academy, as well as ensuring responsiveness in terms of the programmes and curricula that it offers.
As you are aware there has been significant growth in funding allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme to support qualifying students: R12.3 billion in 2017/18 to R43 billion in 2021.
In the current financial year an additional amount of R6.4 billion was allocated through reprioritisation within the Department’s budget and the National Skills Fund to address the NSFAS shortfall.
Following a meeting that I had with SAUS earlier this year, USAf has initiated a process to work towards a system-wide approach to the issue of student transcripts and certificates and outstanding fees. I am aware that USAf has started this process and hopes to conclude it soon. We have established, together with the Development Bank of Southern Africa (DBSA), a Student Housing Infrastructure Programme (SHIP), to centrally facilitate the construction of student accommodation. Our aim is to address the shortage of student housing and accelerate the development of at least 300 000 beds over a ten-year period, and we are working towards delivering even more than this. As part of our development, the University of Fort Hare, Nelson Mandela University, University of North West and University of Western Cape, Sefako Makgatho University and University of Limpopo are the first beneficiaries of our SHIP Phase 1 developments. Phase 1 SHIP developments enabled an investment of about R3.5 billion, including the DBSA commitment of R1.6 million debt funding for 12 000 student beds. Phase 2 SHIP developments comprise of about 24 000 student beds of 12 institutions including 6 universities. I recently launched the Alice Student Village at the University of Fort Hare, and was proud to see the fruits of this work.
We also support the HDIs to deal decisively with some of their long-term infrastructure challenges.