Varsities Eye Austerity Measures as Student Debt Increases

Johannesburg – Leading universities have reported sharp increases in student debt levels ahead of re-opening for the new academic year despite no fee increases last year.

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#FeesMustFall protests

Wits and the universities of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town, among others, told The Sunday Independent they were preparing for austerity measures to reduce budget deficits ahead of the start of the academic year. Campuses were centres of flaming protests last year which were characterised by violence, arrests of student leaders and the postponement of examinations in fight over fee increases. The #FeesMustFall protests led to the no-fee increases for the same year.

However, in December, most universities were allowed to increase their fees by up to 8%. This was after Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande had announced the cap.

UJ reported that more than 9583 of its returning students owe the university almost R265 million in unpaid fees from last year alone. The university is projecting an operating deficit of R19m this year. UJ spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said the 8% increase announced this year would ensure that the university would be able to continue providing quality education and to adequately maintain its infrastructure. “UJ is in constant conversations with all relevant stakeholders to ensure its financial sustainability,” said Esterhuizen.

At UCT, the university said the total amount of outstanding fees for last year was more than R113m. For all operations, which included teaching, research and accommodation, the university said it was expecting to incur an average cost of approximately R440m per month this year. University spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university will continue making strategic decisions in terms of cost cutting measures. “In 2016, UCT embarked on an austerity project to save R120 million on a recurrent basis by 2018,” he said. Moholola said the university would continue to make other strategic decisions in terms of cost-cutting.

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#FeesMustFall protests

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University reported accumulated debt to be R122.5m of which R99.3m was incurred last year. Spokesperson Zandile Mbabela said the university welcomed the 8% fee increase as this would equate to approximately R42m in reducing the budget deficit for the new academic year. “The university has developed both short- and long-term sustainable plans, and other austerity measures have been put into place,” Mbabela said.

The Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) reported that more than 10 600 returning students owe the university about R335.2m in outstanding fees from last year. The university said it was already implementing austerity measures to mitigate the poss- ibility of a decline in revenue this year. “The vice-chancellor, Professor Lourens van Staden, and the Advancement and Partnerships Office have been working tirelessly to raise funds for the TUT Bursary and Scholarship Fund, from which R2.8m will be allocated to financially needy, academically deserving students in 2017,” said spokesperson Willa de Ruyter.

According to the University of Pretoria, as of December last year total debt stood at approximately R189m from 11 500 students. The university said that to deal with any shortfalls in the new academic year, it was not going to be filling any vacant positions in its departments.

At Wits University, which saw bulk of the violent #FeesMustFall protests, spokesperson Buhle Zuma said the university was doing all that it could to ensure that as many students as possible could register while it remained financially sustainable. The university said students who had debt higher than R10 000 would be requested to pay half the outstanding balance and enter into a payment plan for the remainder of the funds, before being allowed to register.

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Roland Mpofu
is a reporter at iol.co.za.

This article appeared in iol.co.za on 29January 2017

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