Indebted and angry

As South Africa’s universities edge towards the end of a very difficult academic year, clear differences between campuses have become evident. At the University of Cape Town, there is an uneasy truce. Bar a few minor incidents, examinations have been completed and December’s graduation ceremonies are expected to go ahead. But at the University of the Western Cape there have been continuing protests and many examinations have had to be abandoned. And the Cape Peninsular University of Technology has been all but closed, with buildings torched and student residences cleared. Here, many final year students will now fail to qualify leaving their futures uncertain and their work opportunities at risk.

The immediate reasons for these differences are complex. And, in circumstances as volatile as these, there can be few secure predictions about what may come next, other than the evident observation that universities’ problems are far from other. Step back a bit, though, and there is one evident determinant of both continuing conflict and the differences between these three very different universities; student debt.

Given South Africa’s historical affinities, both positive and negative, comparisons are often made with Higher Education in Britain. In terms of fees alone, a British student will accumulate an obligation of £27 000 for a three year degree, which is about R570 000 at the current rate of exchange. In comparison, the fees over three years at the UCT will be about R150 000, and less at UWC and CPUT. For a student from a well-off South African family, perhaps qualifying as an accountant at UCT and planning to work in London for a few years to gain experience, this is a great offer; a qualification that is recognized in the City, discounted by 75%. But for students who have to borrow money to pay their fees, their circumstances are very different and far, far worse in South Africa.

A British student can expect to get a full loan by right of citizenship, irrespective of household income. Initial payments due to the university are met from the loan account and no repayment is required before graduation. After graduation, repayment is contingent on income and not on the size of the balance. Interest is below commercial rates and, should any balance remain after 30 years, it is written off. While not technically a graduate tax, Britain’s student loan functions this way, with substantial state subsidy. There is a strong incentive for families who could well afford university fees to take out loans against their children’s academic qualifications, because it’s a cheaper form of finance that a mortgage on the family home over the same period.

Now to South Africa. Here, there is no right to State finance by right of citizenship, and a student from a family with gross household income of more than R180 000 a year is unlikely to qualify; this is about £8 500 and well below Britain’s minimum wage. Further, there’s no guarantee that the money will be there; this academic year NSFAS – the State funding agency – only had sufficient funds to meet about half of its obligations to qualifying students. For those who don’t qualify for loans, or for whom the loans are inadequate, student debt in South Africa is hard debt. There are upfront fees to pay at registration and those who have any outstanding debt cannot graduate and enter the labour market with qualifications.

This is rather like saying to a family in Britain, earning household income at the national average, that they must surrender their entire pre-tax household income for a year before they will be allowed in to their son or daughter’s graduation ceremony.

Back now to Cape Town’s three – very different – universities. There are many students at UCT who need and receive financial assistance. And there are many unresolved issues. But, in comparative terms, student debt is much less of a problem than at UWC and CPUT. These two universities serve Cape Town’s low and middle income families, as well as substantial numbers from the City’s townships. For these students, and their families, debt is raw, visceral and lived out through compromises; minimal living standards, not enough to eat, no chance of buying books. Universities are a promise of opportunity and the inspiration for dreams; debt crushes both.

Last week, CPUT student leaders wrote an open letter to their families, published in the local newspaper. While much of this details their fight with the university’s Council and management – matters that are of course disputed – the underlying wound of debt and the impossible financial circumstances of students from poor and average financial circumstances comes through clearly:

You do not get your final results which are needed in order to apply for a job. …You do not get to register the next year unless your debt is fully cleared – even if it’s R100 000, you still need to pay. … NSFAS does not cover carry-over debt even though the fund refused to pay for the previous year’s study … When you graduate with debt, you do not obtain your certificate and academic records to prove that you are qualified. It becomes to impossible to find a job to pay off your loans. … Do you know that there are students who have just one or two outstanding modules to complete their qualifications? But because they have debt, the university refuses to allow them to register for these modules to complete their studies … the most vulnerable are female students who try all possible things to raise the money in a big city like Cape Town. The most extreme practice that we know about is sleeping with old opportunistic men in return for the R5 000. The guys mostly resort to theft and sale of illegal substances with the express purpose of getting registered.

Universities such as UWC and CPUT do the heavy lifting of social and economic transformation. Unless the problem of funding for students from low and middle income families is fixed, problems will continue and escalate. There will also be lasting damage to the South African economy; about half of the country’s population is under the age of 25 and the competencies of the future workforce will be determined by investment in the education of present and coming generations from low and middle income families.

The decision by universities, negotiated with government, that will see no fee increases in 2016 may be good politics; it’s terrible economics. Because the government has agreed to recompense universities proportional to their loss of anticipated revenue, the universities with the highest fees and the largest proposed fee increases will receive the most cash. In order to find the funds – which are unbudgeted against tax revenues – the Department of Education and Training will probably have to abandon projects that were intended to enable universities like UWC and CPUT improve their facilities and support for the least well off students.

The overall consequences will be economically regressive, both at the institutional level and at the individual level. The worse resourced universities will receive little to help them catch up. And students from well-off families, who had anticipated a 10% fee increase in 2016, will be better off.

Understandably, students at CPUT and UWC have been getting a bad press; burning buildings, intimidation and assault are anathema to the idea of a university. But there are messages in the miasma of rage that need to be heard. So last word to #FeesMustFall_CPUT:

We, your children at CPUT, are faced with a tremendous difficulty in terms of completion of our studies and consequently obtaining our qualifications …. We are frustrated, vulnerable, emotional and injured – please intervene as CPUT is a public university.


Cape Times: “CPUT: open letter to parents, public”. 19 November 2015.


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