How much money students owe South Africa’s universities

Universities are currently under fire for high tuition fees and lack of financial aid – but while students protest, they still owe hundreds of millions of rands in fees, with little help from the government.

Students across the country are currently engaged in protest action at their respective universities, standing against proposed increases in fees for next year.

The demonstrations erupted at the University of the Witwatersrand last week, and quickly spread to other institutes across the country, including Stellenbosch, Rhodes and the University of Cape Town.

Among the various cries for lower fees and a halt to fee increases, the availablity of financial aid to students – from the Universities and from government alike – has been drawn into the spotlight.

There has been a clear call for government to step up spending in higher education and to make more funds available through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Read: How funding for university students has dwindled in South Africa

The NSFAS allocated over R9 billion for financial aid at tertiary institutions in 2014 – a figure which increased to R9.5 billion in 2015. The fund’s main source of income is government departments and state institutions, and it gives financial aid to close to half a million students.

On top of state aid, many universities also bank-roll their own financial aid schemes and bursaries – many of which double or even triple the funds available for student aid.

Because of this, however – and because universities struggle to recover funds from government with the NSFAS failing to deliver – universities often incur a loss, with student debt running up into the millions.

Looking at the top universities in South Africa (determined from various global rankings), students from eight institutes owe over R711 million on tuition fees and loans – this, from close to R4 billion in aid made available (including NSFAS).

In every annual report by the universities reviewed, the demand outstripping supply of financial aid – particularly with regard to the NSFAS allocation – is mentioned explicitly.

Breakdown of debt by university

The table below breaks down South Africa’s top universities’ debt standings as at December 2014, as well as how much is set aside for student aid.

The University of Pretoria, while a top university, was excluded as it has not made its annual report detailing financial statements available online.

University NSFAS (Rm) Total aid (Rm) Student Debt (Rm)
University of KwaZulu-Natal 269.5 743.1 272.6
University of the Witwatersrand 321.2 830.4 135.0
Stellenbosch University Not specified 588.0 73.2
Rhodes University 35.0 168.2 70.2
Unisa 15.0 140.0 69.2
University of Cape Town 105.0 538.0 58.7
University of Johannesburg 46.0 280.7 22.0
North West University Not specified 694.1 11.0
Total 3 982.5 711.9

Total aid includes NSFAS contributions, as well as university bursaries and scholarships made available to students. Source: University annual reports for 2014.

Rhodes reported that over the past decade, it has provided R214.4 million of its own funds – above the NSFAS allocation – to support students, while “the recovery rate of these funds through NSFAS acting as an agency has not been successful,” it said.

Rhodes students owe over R70 million in debt, including R62 million outstanding NSFAS claims, as well as R7.9 million of its own student load debt.

Student debt at Wits at the end of 2014 was R135 million – impacted by the shortfall of allocated funding versus student need from the NSFAS, it said.

For the 2014 financial year, while shortfalls in collection at North-West University lead to it being owed R11 million by students at the end of the year, it also wrote off almost R37 million in debt as “irrecoverable and doubtful”.

Stellenbosch University, especially, bemoaned a lack of support from the NSFAS, saying it would have to make its own provisions in the future. At the end of 2014, the university handed over R59 million in debt to collectors, wrote off R6.8 million, leaving it with a balance of R73.2 million being owed by students.

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How much money students owe South Africa’s universities