Wits Student Takes University To Court Over Student Debt But Lost The Battle


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The crisis of South Africa's staggering and continuously rising student debt is a great source of worry for many, bringing along a myriad of associated challenges. For one father-daughter duo, the challenges have greatly persisted.


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A student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and her father have lost a court battle against the university, asking that she be allowed to graduate with a teaching degree, while owing the institution around R100 000 in tuition fees.

The student, Tsakani Makhubele and her father, Nathaniel Makhubele, turned to the Johannesburg High Court in an effort to compel the university to allow Tsakani to register for the Bachelor of Education (BEd) Honours Programme offered at Wits and receive her teaching degree certificate, as she has already completed her Undergraduate studies. 

Unfortunately, the High Court ruled that because Makhubele did not comply with the acknowledgment of debt he and Tsakani had signed (which allowed her to register for her final year of study last year) that stated R35 000 from the R102 139 owed in outstanding fees would be paid towards the settlement of the student's debt, their pleas have been rejected. 

The father-daughter duo submitted two applications to the Johannesburg High Court; the first application was rejected, because Makhubele acknowledged his responsibility and short-comings when it came to paying the money owed to the institution for his daughter's studies.

Acting Judge G. Meyer, who handed out the first application's ruling, said: 

On his own admission, he failed to pay the amounts owing to the university pursuant to the 2022 acknowledgment of debt and acknowledged that an amount of R98 000 remained due and payable as at April 2023. 

Meyer stated that Makhubele told the court that the Regional Divorce Court ordered him (Makhubele) to pay his daughter's fees after a settlement agreement between his wife and himself; Makhubele, however, wanted the court to set aside Meyer's ruling. 

Part of the Makhubeles' plea was that Tsakani has been unable to secure a teaching post, because she cannot register with the South African Council of Educators (SACE) without her degree certificate. 

Makhubele also offered to provide Wits University with a fresh acknowledgment of debt for this year (2023), but the institution refused. According to Wit's statute, a student qualifying to graduate can be prohibited from doing so until their outstanding fees are paid.

The second application was dismissed by court Judge, Steven Budlender on 13 July 2023.

Wits Spokesperson, Shirona Patel, said:

Two judges found in the university's favour, yet the father persists in dragging us to court on the same matter.

Patel added that while Tsakani may not participate in her graduation ceremony, she will still receive her academic transcript which will reflect and confirm that she has completed her degree.

The impact of student debt on students and institutions

The reason for prohibiting students from graduating if more than R15 000 is owed to Wits is one of the ways the university manages debt owed to it, explains Patel.

The student debt many families acquire during a period of tertiary education is crippling, for institutions of higher education as well.

Student debt issues are extremely challenging to deal with in an already financially constrained higher education sector. 

The "solution" has been to tell students to get jobs while they are studying, or secure bursaries/scholarships, but these are not guaranteed to work for every student. Youth unemployment is astronomically high, and so is the overall cost of living.

Speaking on behalf of his daughter, Makhubele has labelled the situation as a "deeply personal matter."

The matter is also personal because both my daughter and I are graduates of the university. I obtained all my postgraduate qualifications, including a doctoral degree, at Wits. 

Student debt has been a long-standing worry for students and their parents across, despite the consistent promise of "free education for all." 

An all too familiar consequence of this according to Student Debt Specialist, Paulvia Shiburi is that, on several occasions, impacted parents end up seeking help from debt counsellors due to their inability to repay student loans.

Even as debt counsellors, we have seen that multiple parents come and apply for debt counselling because of the student loans that they've taken from several Banks. And not only limited to Banks as even the grants that have been supported by the government you know that are initiated by the government for students.

Lauren Kansley, Spokesperson for the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), whose students took intense protest action regarding another change in NSFAS eligibility, said that student debt has worsened since last year, stating that a total of 50 219 students were in debt. 

Kansley confirmed that the degrees and diplomas of over 3000 students were being withheld; these students collectively owe R228.4 million in outstanding fees. 

This is caused by the registration of progressing students who are self-funded. Without NSFAS funding, they are struggling to maintain payments. 

However, to prevent the hinderance of job searching, Kansley says students owing tuition fees are issued with a certificate of completion while their official qualifications are withheld. 

Additionally, the mounting costs associated with debt can harm the mental health of students and their participation at university. This is because having debt is a major stress factor in the lives of individuals.

Student debt, in particular, can serve as discouragement or demotivation towards a student completing their degree. The debt won't only affect their participation and academic performance at university, but will remain after a student has left university.

In some cases, this debt could delay life events that they may want to experience, including starting a family and the ability to purchase a home.

How NSFAS continues to exclude more students from entering higher education

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), despite providing the financial means for millions of students to attend a South African university or TVET college, has repeatedly failed its beneficiaries by often changing its eligibility rules (which excludes a number of students), refusing to fund the "missing middle" and choosing to stop funding postgraduate qualifications. 

In a number fields, one qualification is simply not enough.

Expecting postgraduate students to pay for their studies without financial aid is odd, since they previously couldn't afford their undergraduate studies without help from NSFAS; it is very unlikely that their financial situation has changed by the time they're able to apply for postgrad. 

Is free higher education for all actually possible?

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, have made multiple suggestions and developed potential solutions when it comes to alleviating some of the challenges faced by "missing middle" students. 

The Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA) recently revealed its findings that resulted from an investigation into NSFAS, questioning whether certain areas of spending are necessary, or are actually draining the bursary scheme's resources, at the expense of student subsidies, most notably the R45 000 student accommodation allowance cap implemented this year. 

The idea of free education also is tainted by the fact that NSFAS has been the centre of many instances of fraud and corruption, with the latest revelation involving R5 million in mismanaged funds, leaving students with not much hope. 

However, Nzimande has previously made it clear that there is no free higher education for all as government has previously said that they can't afford it. 

What is the Department of Higher Education's plan to solve the student debt crisis?

During his 2023 NSFAS state of readiness speech, Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, pointed out that the extent of student debt poses a serious threat to the future sustainability of the country's higher education institutions.

The Minister confirmed that the current student debt owed to tertiary institutions stood at around R16.5 billion

Addressing the issue of student debt, Nzimande stated that the government was set on wrapping up consultations on the comprehensive student funding model.

Suggested Article:

higher education minister blade nzimande speaking on student loans

A pressing issue within higher education is that of student debt. With student debt in the country amounting to billions, urgent interventions are needed.






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