South Africa

CAMPUS STRIFE

From Stellies to Wits, NSFAS’s caps on accommodation allowances fuel tension at universities across SA

From Stellies to Wits, NSFAS’s caps on accommodation allowances fuel tension at universities across SA
UCT students attend a night vigil held by its SRC in protest against ongoing issues with housing and financial exclusion at the university. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

The academic year has started on a shaky note for tertiary institutions across South Africa after the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s decision to cap accommodation allowances left many students without housing. The University of Cape Town has taken all their classes online amid an SRC shutdown on the campus, while other universities are in talks to try to find solutions.

Universities across South Africa are not having an easy start to the academic year as students struggle with housing, fee blocks and financial exclusion. With the University of Cape Town (UCT) shutting down its campuses on Monday because of protests, tensions are rising on campuses across the country as Students’ Representative Councils (SRCs) search for solutions.

New year, same issues

This is not the first time that the academic year has begun with protests and chants of dissatisfaction from students. The focus of student protests in 2021 and 2022 was the increasing burden of student debt that, for many, was exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Statistics show that national student debt increased by R3-billion between 2020 and 2021, with the total debt at R16.5-billion by the end of 2021. 

With student debt ballooning, it is unsurprising that student protests have focused on alleviating financial pressure — especially since many universities place fee blocks on students who have accumulated a certain amount of debt. This often prevents students from registering and completing their studies.

This year, students have gathered to protest again, and there is another layer that has complicated things — the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). 

NSFAS has made a decision to cap accommodation allowances and students say these allowance limits aren’t feasible because of the high costs of living and housing. The decision has put a lot of pressure on universities as many students have been left without adequate solutions, with black and poor students being disproportionately affected.

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) has released a report that outlines an investigation into the allocation of funds within NSFAS. Outa noted that despite cutting subsidies for student accommodation this year, NSFAS spent more than R166-million on office rental space, which means NSFAS is on average paying R74,000 per employee per year to lease its offices.

Outa has also investigated two other tenders within NSFAS and “questions the value of these contracts, particularly in the light of the NSFAS reduction of subsidies for student accommodation”.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “This is not a new problem’ — protesting UCT students voice their dissatisfaction

Some of the universities where students are protesting or in talks with management over debt and housing access include:

UWC

Peaceful protests began this week at UWC campuses and were organised by various student formations, including the SRC. Students encouraged the suspension of academic activity until all students receive financial clearance to register.

Zeke Wareley, a UWC postgraduate student involved in the protests, told Daily Maverick that thousands of students were being left behind because they had not been financially cleared to register. 

On Tuesday, the UWC SRC handed over a memorandum of demands to Dr Matete Madiba, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor.

In an email sent to students, the acting rector and vice-chancellor, Vivienne Lawack, said: “I acknowledge that this process has been very frustrating for fellow students and academics as classes have been disrupted. However, I want to use this opportunity to thank everyone for their patience while the university is in the process of resolving these issues. We hope to reach a resolution as soon as possible.”


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Rhodes University

In a statement released on Wednesday, the Rhodes SRC announced it had been in talks with the university’s management regarding registration and accommodation challenges. Many Rhodes students have been unable to register because of delays in NSFAS and National Research Fund systems.

The SRC noted that this is not a unique issue Rhodes is facing but one of national relevance. It has met with delegates of the Department of Higher Education to implore that it addresses these issues urgently. 

On Thursday, the SRC announced that it had accepted a donation of R800,000 from the Motsepe Foundation, which it is using to assist in registering students. 

University of Pretoria (UP)

UP’s SRC has been actively engaging with university management to find a resolution to the accommodation plight caused by NSFAS capping student allowances. UP’s executive management held a meeting on Thursday with the SRC, and SRC Secretary Phenyo Matabane said:

“After today’s meeting with the executive management, we have realised that there is no solution to this accommodation crisis from the university’s side. The proposed solutions that we have tabled [were] deemed to be impossible to achieve as major issues include legal battles with private stakeholders; furthermore, the institution claims that it does not have money.

“The proposed solution on accrediting communes was well received; however, the only question stands on the possibilities of NSFAS paying for those types of accommodations.”

The UP SRC has taken the decision to consider “other options” to address what they are referring to as a “crisis”.

University of the Witwatersrand

As a response to students being unable to register because of debt, the Wits SRC has launched a campaign to raise funds to assist these students. About 14,000 students are unable to register at the university this year. The SRC has called on businesses and other stakeholders in Johannesburg to pledge funds to relieve the financial burden of these students.

The Wits SRC has also received a generous donation of R1-million from the Motsepe Foundation which will go towards clearing the debt of students. The SRC said it remained committed to achieving “free, inclusive and decolonised education for all”.

Stellenbosch University

At Stellenbosch, the SRC has outwardly rejected the accommodation allowance caps imposed by NSFAS. On Friday, 10 February, students marched to NSFAS’s offices in Cape Town to peacefully protest against these accommodation caps.

The SRC noted that most of Stellenbosch’s NSFAS-funded students were now unable to afford housing and had been left without accommodation. A mass meeting is planned for Friday, 16 February where students will be updated on the state of accommodation, registration, readmission and food security at the university. 

UCT students attend a night vigil held by its SRC in protest against ongoing issues with housing and financial exclusion at the university. (Photo: Alinaswe Lusengo)

UCT

On Monday, UCT’s SRC initiated a campus shutdown in order to protest against housing issues, fee blocks and financial exclusion. Peaceful protests have continued throughout the week and a night vigil was held on Thursday evening, during which students congregated at Sarah Baartman Hall in solidarity with those affected by “the ongoing crises of financial exclusion”. 

Protests were spurred after the student housing department’s decision to withdraw residence offers from students with fee blocks. The university moved all lectures online until further notice.

UCT’s media spokesperson, Elijah Moholola, stated: “The university leadership will continue engaging with the SRC to resolve issues as speedily as possible and ensure the resumption of in-person academic activities.” DM

This article was corrected on Friday 17 February, 2023, to remove a reference to UWC being shut down, which is not the case. 

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jon Quirk says:

    The NSFAS loan funding for students programme is unsustainable and a disaster in the making, not because it is idealistically wrong, but it manifestly supports the wrong students doing the wrong degrees.

    Lets us not pretend we live in utopia and that all students are academically capable, but that sadly some students are let down by social circumstances and bad parenting/schooling; those problems will not be solved by setting students up for both failure and debt problems, because what is the possibility of a youngster, with a social “science” degree and low IQ ever being able to fund the debt repayment when the chosen degree has no meaningful, post-degree career path?

    So rather than the continual dumbing down of the metric and exams in general, make them harder and bench-markably internationally standardised, such that the better students are picked out and recognised. Then take it a stage further and offer guidance into a degree path, that offers not a meaningless easy-to-obtain degree, but one that will lead to a STEM subject degree.

    The scattergun approach, the equivalent of tossing armfuls of confetti over all, irrespective of whether they are getting married or not, is just a gross waste of very scarce tax-payers funds, and provides no developmental gains for our country.

  • R S says:

    And at the end of the day, all roads lead to the ANC…

  • Rory Short says:

    “The scattergun approach, the equivalent of tossing armfuls of confetti over all, irrespective of whether they are getting married or not, is just a gross waste of very scarce tax-payers funds, and provides no developmental gains for our country.”

    I couldn’t agree with you more.

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