Maverick Citizen

OP-ED

The issue of student debt at UKZN should be of national concern

The issue of student debt at UKZN should be of national concern
Students at the University of KwaZulu-Natal have suspended protests until Friday. (Photo: Flickr/donotxtouchme)

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, student debt has risen from R600-million in 2010 to R1.7-billion in 2019. The university states that it doesn’t have the financial capacity to write off the students’ debt. This should be an issue of national concern since the issue of student debt, poverty and unemployment are not problems of the university’s making.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) has been in the news for the last three weeks and not for good reasons. There have been student protests, barricading of entrances and the burning of some buildings. The academic programme was suspended and then re-started. While many lectures have taken place, there is also intimidation and disruption, and many staff and students do not feel safe.  

Students are protesting because the university has said that they can only register once they have paid 15% of their historical debt. For many, this is an insurmountable request. The university management says that they can’t write off student debt, which stands at R1.7-billion. This is Sipho’s* story to illustrate some of the key issues at play.

Like many UKZN students, Sipho comes from a poor rural village with few opportunities for formal jobs. Tertiary study is his lifeline out of that world and into a world of work opportunities. He had National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), funding to cover the cost of tuition and residence for his undergraduate degree, a Bachelor of Social Science. But one’s chances of getting a job with such a degree are slim, especially if you have few social networks. So Sipho studied for an Honours (Hons) degree. The university accepted him into the programme and offered him fee remission, but no money to pay for residence (which is about R50,000 per year). That’s how his historical debt started to accumulate. 

He could not find a job with his Hons degree, so he decided it was better to stay and get a Masters degree, which would give him an edge in the job market. It was better than sitting humiliated and unemployed with the gogos (grannies) in his rural home. The university accepted him into the Master’s programme and again, gave him fee remission, but not the residence fee. They did not ask him to pay the debt that had accumulated from the residence costs of his Hons degree, and he accumulated another year’s residence fees as debt. 

He did not complete his masters in one year and now wants to complete it this year. He travelled from home for the start of the semester in order to register, only to be told that he needed to pay 15% of his debt. He has no means to pay this debt and no relative with a stable income who is willing to stand surety for him. He is stuck, desperate to complete his Masters’ degree and get work.

Sipho’s story illustrates two very pervasive discourses in South Africa. 

First, that education must be free, the promise made by ex-president Jacob Zuma at the end of 2016, and second that higher education is the only way out of a life of poverty into stable paid employment. 

Sipho, like Zuma, didn’t really examine the implications of pronouncing free education, such as who would fund it and to what level of education it applies. Is it the right of every qualifying South African to study for a fully paid undergraduate degree, or should free education extend to an Honors degree or a Masters degree?  

The confounding factors here are the country’s shockingly high unemployment statistics, together with the falling value of a university degree. 

In South Africa, having a degree does still provide an edge in getting paid employment, although it does not guarantee it. But as higher education massifies, more and more people have a degree, so it loses its value. 

This is why to get that edge, students believe that they need to have a postgraduate degree. The other reason for staying on in the university system is that it provides a way to remain in a more urban, connected environment, which obviously has greater opportunities for employment.  In this sense, higher education provides a temporary social security net for students, but at a very high cost to the state and taxpayer.

The second pervasive discourse is that higher education is the only way out of poverty and that everyone who qualifies must go to university. Young people receive minimal, if any, career guidance at school, or at home about what they could study, and often have no idea that there may be other options to studying at university. 

Few students wish to explore technical, or practical options like plumbing, electrical work, or car mechanics. Young people need better guidance and more information to understand the range of options, particularly those that may lead to specific job opportunities.  

At UKZN, 78% of students receive NSFAS funding, which means that they have a household income of less than R350,000 per annum. Thus they have no financial cushion at home to help them out. Student debt has risen from R600-million in 2010 to R1.7-billion in 2019. 

The university states that it doesn’t have the financial capacity to write off the students’ debt without compromising the quality of its programmes and operations, and the SRC will not give up the fight for students who are excluded. 

Incidents of arson and intimidation do not support the students’ cause while negotiations go on to find a way forward. UKZN is a university that is the hope for many poor rural youngsters and it would be a tragedy if we can’t find a way through this crisis. It should be an issue of national concern since the issue of student debt, poverty and unemployment are not problems of the university’s making. 

In the meantime, Sipho hopes that his debt will be paid so he can complete his Masters degree and get a job. DM

Carol Bertram is an Associate Professor at the School of Education, UKZN, Pietermaritzburg. 

*Sipho is a pseudonym. He has read this article and agrees to it being published. 

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