Higher Education and Training minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, says the department is not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all the debt of fee-paying students.
Responding to the South African Union of Students (SAUS) letter of demands, Nzimande acknowledged that there are many students whose families struggle to keep up with fee payments, and many families who have also been negatively affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, given the difficult fiscal situation, the minister said all government departments, including Higher Education and Training, have been subject to budget reductions in 2020 and 2021.
“I am aware that many institutions are doing what they can to assist students in need, and to allow them to make payment arrangements to be able to register, where this is possible.
“However, institutions also have to remain financially sustainable in order to continue to operate effectively, and financial decisions are made at the level of university councils.
“The historic debt of 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,” Nzimande said.
Postgraduate funding to be addressed in policy review
Regarding the immediate provision of post-graduate funding, the minister said the department is advocating for advanced diploma qualifications to be included in the funding framework.
Nzimande acknowledged that postgraduate funding is an issue that requires attention, as there is limited funding available from the National Research Foundation (NRF).
However, he noted that in 2021, the new NRF policy considers funding of students who were NSFAS recipients.
“This is an important matter that needs to be addressed in the policy review process that will be undertaken in 2021 by the department, as outlined in my media statement on 11 March 2021,” Nzimande said.
The minister reiterated that all first-time entering students will be able to register following the commitment to reprioritise funding from the department to address the NSFAS shortfall for 2021.
First laptop deliveries to be made in April
On the provision of laptops for students, the minister said that NSFAS has placed a first order for laptops, and these will be made available to students, in line with the agreed processes, as soon as they are available.
NSFAS has indicated that the first deliveries will be made in April 2021.
Nzimande has also ordered that all student allowances be provided in March when the academic year starts, and landlords are already harassing students for payment.
“These processes are being managed by individual universities, in line with their registration dates. However, 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.”
Institutions reminded to adhere to enrolment plan
The minister said the department works together with institutions to agree on an enrolment plan.
The current enrolment plan covers the period 2020 to 2025.
Nzimande reminded institutions to adhere as closely as possible to their enrolment plans, as they guide both the funding of the system, as well as ensure that they 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 [University of South Africa] decision to reduce its enrolments based on over enrolments in 2020 is currently in the courts,” he said.
Nzimande emphasised that students must be provided with their academic records and certificates, even those who owe the universities.
He said all institutions have confirmed that they have mechanisms in place to ensure that students with debt are able to receive academic records and certificates of completion for the purposes of further study and accessing employment opportunities.
“The department works directly with institutions, where necessary, to facilitate queries on these matters. I agree that no student should be prevented from accessing employment or other opportunities because they have outstanding fees,” the minister said.