Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Save our institutions

Dispatch Online


Save our institutions

A REPORT over the weekend that South Africa’s students owed R13.2billion in tuition and accommodation fees is a clear indication of the depth of the debt crisis facing our universities.

Thousands of students at 14 of the country’s 23 tertiary institutions are liable for more than R2bn in outstanding fees this year alone, the Sunday Times reported.

Institutions are battling to get the money back, including from students financed through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which is expected to pay at least R788.2 million of the outstanding fees of this year.

The NSFAS is owed R3.3bn over the last 11 years by graduates who got study loans, while another R7.1bn is owed by more than 530000 students who are still studying or who have dropped out.

In our region of the Eastern Cape, the picture is equally bleak. Walter Sisulu University has the dubious distinction of being owed almost R389m in outstanding fees – including R121m last year.

According to a financial report presented at an executive management meeting last month, WSU will have a projected deficit of almost R66m by the end of this year.

Judging by the response from WSU’s vice-chancellor Marcus Balintulo – who described WSU’s student debt crisis as “critical” – a solution may still be a long way away.

“We have to juggle around and sometimes we delay paying (for services). It’s a tough situation,” he told the Sunday Times.

What is clear is that a blame game for the current cash crunch at WSU and elsewhere will get nowhere closer to solving the problem.

Riots like the one at WSU’s Nelson Mandela Drive campus in Mthatha last week, which saw 241 students arrested, are not only unacceptable, but also do nothing to solve the situation.

The solution, it seems, lies in untangling a number of complex issues interwoven in a vicious circle involving students, institutions, government and the private sector.

Students need to understand that study loans – including from the NSFAS – are contracts that must be fulfilled.

This means returning to the lecture halls and bringing home proper pass rates as their side of the bargain.

Institutions like WSU need to beef up their culture of learning and their image as places of excellence where young people, mostly from disadvantaged communities, have hope for a brighter future.

Government – and the private sector, for that matter – needs to create jobs and find the space to reward those who make it to help ease their financial burden in paying back student loans.

But, as Balintulo said: “It’s a tough situation.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

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