Many South African universities are owed large sums of money by students who fail to meet their tuition fee deadlines. Tuition fees form a large part of the universities’ income, putting these institutions in a difficult position.

The acting chief director of Higher Education SA, Jeffrey Mabelebele, told IOL News that he sympathises with students who cannot pay their fees. However, he emphasised that students need to pay their debts because universities must fund their running costs. “Unpaid student debt impacts on operations of universities because the money they owe in terms of tuition contributes to the efficient and effective running of our institutions,” said Mabelebele.

According to Tuks Media Liaison Officer Sanku Tsunke, some students find it difficult to settle their fees or delay payment of their fees. Non-payment of fees can result in the university withholding the student’s quaification, denying or delaying registration and denying accommodation and meals in residence.

IOL News reported that the University of KwaZulu-Natal has a total student debt of approximately R220 million. The University of Venda has debt dating back to 1982. Their spokesperson Welheminah Mabogo told IOL News than R100 million is owed by 15 000 students. The University of Limpopo’s student debt has risen from of R50 million in 2009 to R81.9 million by the end of last year.

According to the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) executive director of communications and marketing, Gerda Kruger, UCT has a small percentage of outstanding debt. UCT has extensive policies with regard to debt collection. These include preventing students who owe money from registering, graduating or obtaining academic transcripts. These students are given until the end of March in the following year to settle their debts after which their accounts are handed over to the institution’s attorneys. UCT’s attorneys follow legal processes to recover debt.

Helette Pieterse, Stellenbosch University’s director of financial planning and asset management, said that like most universities in South Africa, Stellenbosch University is also affected by students who are indebted to the university. In most cases, examination results will be withheld from students or they will not be allowed to register for the following year if their fees are outstanding. However, the university prefers to assist those students owing the university money with bursaries and loans where possible. Assistance is based on academic performance and the availability of funds.

Department of Higher Education and Training spokesperson Vuyelwa Qinga told IOL News that an historical debt allocation of R30 million was made available for the 2012 academic year. By the end of last year, universities had claimed only R16.8 million.

Another R350 million was made available to universities to settle the debts of continuing students. A report by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme showed that only R220 million of this was claimed by universities at the end of 2012.

Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie

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