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RIGHT TO EDUCATION

Ballooning Wits student debt threatens start of 2021 academic year

Protests are escalating at Wits University over historical debt. (Photo by Gallo Images/Sharon Seretlo)

The Wits Coalition for Free Education – more than 30 student organisations uniting in response to the crisis of student debt and financial exclusion at the university – began organising protests this week to demand action on exclusions for student debt.

According to the coalition, in the 2021 academic year more than 8,000 students have been unable to register on account of historical debt amounting to more than R1-billion. 

This is at Wits alone. 

On Monday, 1 March, the coalition presented a joint memorandum of demands to the university, including that all students with outstanding debt be registered.

The coalition complains that it has yet to receive a response, despite the urgency of the situation.

However, the Wits Dean of Student Affairs, Jerome September, in a document titled “Response to the SRC’s request for concessions in 2021”, says: “The Senior Executive Team (SET) is aware and sensitive of the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on students, staff and broader society. Similarly, the SRC is acutely aware of the adverse impact of the current economic climate on the higher education sector, and the university.” 

The Wits report confirms that between 2019 and 2020 debt levels rose from R859-million to R1.062-billion, and is “almost double what it was in 2017” – with provision for bad debt by the university in 2020 set at R538-million. Wits says that 27,000 of its 37,500 students “are on some form of financial aid, scholarship or bursary”.

The report acknowledges: “We live through unprecedented times amid a global pandemic that is disrupting our society and creating a high level of uncertainty. The higher education sector, including Wits, has not been spared. We rely on funding from the state, the private sector and student fees to remain financially sustainable. At the same time, we acknowledge that students, families and parents are also severely impacted by the coronavirus.”

However, it seems the university and the students are between a rock and a hard place. In the midst of an economic crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic the concessions on free education made after the #FeesMustFall movement seem not to have alleviated pressure on either students or Wits, and the system is buckling again.

In this context, September lists a number of “concessions” that have been made to students, including allowing those with debt of less than R10,000 to register; allowing students to enter into interest-free payment plans based on an acknowledgment of debt; and scrapping interest on outstanding fees from 2020. 

But the report also lists the demands on which the university says it cannot afford to concede, including allowing students rejected by residences for financial reasons in 2020 to be allowed back into residence, pointing out: “The university receives approximately 30,000 applications for accommodation annually and only has 6,495 available beds.”

In response to claims that Wits has not met with the coalition, September says meetings have been taking place with the student representative council (SRC) “as the duly elected body with whom we negotiate”. 

As a result of the deadlock, on Friday, 5 March, the coalition issued an open letter to Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, the newly installed vice-chancellor, who they say has so far failed to address this crisis. The letter calls on Vilakazi to “shoot for the moon” and “allow every single student to register immediately and subsequently pressure the government for a Higher Education Debt Bailout”. It is published in full below.

At the time of writing, protests are escalating and an immediate resolution seems unlikely. According to Raees Noorbhai, former Wits Student Forum chairperson and one of the protest organisers: “We have resolved that we will not allow the academic programme, which was scheduled to begin on Monday, to continue as normal until every student is allowed to register, regardless of historical debt.”

Open Letter to Wits Vice-Chancellor Zeblon Vilakazi on Student Debt and the Financial Exclusion Crisis  

5 March 2021 

Dear Professor Zeblon Vilakazi,  

You have taken office in the midst of an unprecedented crisis. As you know,  more than 8,000 students are currently at risk of financial exclusion. The total student debt at Wits University has risen rapidly over the past few years and  now sits above R1-billion. Debt remains an unjust barrier to registration and graduation. Moreover, in the middle of a pandemic, the university has chosen to increase tuition and residence fees, which were already exorbitant  and unaffordable. More and more students are being turned away from the doors of higher education because they cannot pay enormous amounts of money to the institution, perpetuating a racialised inequality manufactured  by colonialism and apartheid. We refuse to pretend like this is business as  usual.  

In response to this crisis of student debt and financial exclusion, the Wits  SRC embarked upon the #21MillionIn2021 campaign to raise funds to pay  the debts of students who can’t register. We acknowledge that R21-million is approximately 2% of the total student debt. Donor-dependent models like the #21MillionIn2021 campaign are unsustainable and incapable of rectifying the systemic issue of student debt.  

In the past, when students have demanded free education from the  institution, Wits has told us that it is not within its capacity to meet that  demand. Again, with student debt, the institution claims that it cannot afford to allow for students to register with historical debt. The institution is claiming that it has good intent, but is financially constrained.  

Professor Vilakazi, if you truly have the interests of students at heart, we  demand that you allow every single student to register immediately and  subsequently pressure the government for a Higher Education Debt Bailout. 

This will also allow for the graduation of all students whose degrees are being withheld on account of historical debt.  

The bailout will only break the cycle of debt if it is part of a programme of  free, decolonised education. Increasing residence and tuition fees is heartless and runs contrary to this programme, leading to the accrual of more debt. Actualising free education is no small task and requires bold  leadership. We are asking you to rise to the challenge.  

We therefore presented a joint memorandum of demands, endorsed by more than 30 student organisations on campus, to the university on Monday, 1 March. The following demands were contained in the memorandum:  

1) We demand that the university allows every single student to register immediately, regardless of the amount of historical debt owed to the institution;  

2) Every single student who has completed the requirements for their degrees should be allowed to graduate and receive their degrees, regardless of the amount of historical debt owed to the  institution;  

3) We acknowledge that the university alone cannot rectify the issue of  student debt, or actualise the promise of free, decolonised education. To  enable both registration and graduation unhindered by the shackles of  historical debt, the university must pressure the state for a Higher  Education Debt Bailout to eliminate the rapidly rising levels of student  debt;  

4) Given the devastating economic impact of Covid and the fact that  current fees are already exorbitant, the university’s decision to further  increase residence and tuition fees is an insult. We reject the fee  increments entirely and demand that the university decreases fees as a step in the direction of free education;  

5) Every student who has been accepted to a Wits residence for the 2021 academic year should be admitted to residence immediately. The phased-in approach does not recognise that all residence students,  regardless of their faculty or year of study, urgently require  accommodation and access to resources on campus;  

6) We call on the university to provide or arrange emergency  accommodation for all students who live in other provinces and require in-person assistance with registration;  

7) We demand that the university dismantles the upfront 75% payment of fees for African international students.

We have yet to receive a response from the university to these demands.  We cannot and will not accept more inaction and delay. If you are to fulfil  your role as vice-chancellor, you must recognise the urgency of  comprehensively addressing this crisis.  

Professor Vilakazi, now is the time to shoot for the moon.  

Wits Coalition for Free Education:  

– Wits EFF Student Command  

– Wits All Faculty Council  

– Wits Science Faculty Council  

– Wits Engineering Faculty Council  

– Wits Sports Council  

– Wits Sunnyside Residence House Committee  

– Wits Knockando Residence House Committee  

– Wits Girton Hall Residence House Committee  

– Wits Medhurst Residence House Committee  

– Wits Physics School Council  

– Wits Molecular and Cell Biology Council  

– Wits Statistics and Actuarial Sciences Council  

– Wits Geosciences Council  

– Wits Mathematics Council  

– Wits Chemistry School Council  

– Wits Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences Council  

– Wits Computer Science and Applied Mathematics School Council

– Wits Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies School Council 

– Wits Construction, Economics and Management School Council  

– Wits Chemical and Mechanical Engineering School Council  – Wits Electrical and Information Engineering School Council  

– Wits Architecture and Planning School Council  

– Wits Arts School Council  

– Wits Human and Community Development School Council

– Wits Palestine Solidarity Committee  

– Wits Khomanani Tsonga Student Society  

– Wits Association of Black Securities and Investment Professionals 

– Wits Muslim Students Association  

– Wits Model United Nations  

– Wits Right to Protest  

– Wits Astronomy Club. DM/MC

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  • “The letter calls on Vilakazi to “shoot for the moon” and “allow every single student to register immediately and subsequently pressure the government for a Higher Education Debt Bailout”.”

    A bailout? With what money?

  • The question is, as always, who should pay? Where should the money come from?

    Our country is bankrupt; a combination of reckless, extremely poor governance by the ANC, state looting in the “lost nine years”, a massively bloated and incompetent government sector at national, regional and local government levels means that our country spends more than double what even far richer countries pay on governance, exacerbated here at home by extreme levels of incompetence that means that precious little value is delivered despite the massive over-consumption by the public sector. So who should pay? Should we scrap social grants and give rather to students? We can’t borrow more or tax more as we have already overdrawn from both these wells. So I ask again – why should pay?

    • Jon : thank Zuma for this. One of his last hand grenades was to toss “free university” out there.

      Basically he left a floater in the jacuzzi just because his time was up.

  • SA can’t afford thousands of students failing to pass irrelevant degrees in 2X the time enjoying free tuition, accommodation, food, internet, computers.

    Start with bright kids getting a job in their local government and studying part-time. Pass your first year – progress to free fulltime varsity!

  • This country has the potential to be a top 3 global economy and military power, the students should sit with their elders and ask why this government has been allowed to continue its destruction of Mzansi!