South African universities are currently struggling financially and the situation is worsened by the huge, ballooning debt owed to the institutions by students, the Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training chaired by Justice Jonathan Arthur Heher heard on Wednesday.
“At the universities that are under financial stress, expenditure increased by 20.8% and personnel costs by 17.1% between 2012 and 2014. Personnel costs constitute 53% of total expenditure in 2014,” director-general in the department of higher education and training Gwebinkundla Qonde told the inquiry in Pretoria.
“The greatest cost driver is staffing, although expenditure on staffing increased, student-staff ratios worsened. That is an important point to emphasise. Staff growth has not kept pace with student growth.”
Qonde said in 2014, five universities incurred operating deficits.
“Five universities incurred operating deficits in 2014 while seven incurred operating deficits in their council controlled funds in 2014. For four of these universities, it was for a second year running and for a third consecutive year for one of the universities.
Qonde said the situation in the institutions of higher was already critical long before students embarked on the violent #FeesMustFall protests that crippled the sector last year.
“The financial situation is worsening. The system is under financial stress even before the #FeesMustFall campaign. The effect of the 0% increase (a result of the #FeesMustFall protests) and the demand for insourcing of workers at universities is still to be quantified,” said Qonde.
“Financial sustainability of the sector whole is at high risk and is exacerbated by significant student debt at the present moment. Student debt before provision for doubtful debt was 27.8% of income from tuition fees in 2014, increasing from R3.617 billion in 2012 to R5.451 billion in 2014 – an increase of about 50.7%.”
Qonde said these figures were money owed to universities directly, excluding all funds given to students by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
“It is likely that the 2016 student debt will increase — according to reports anecdotally that in the wake of the #FeesMustFall campaign, it is harder to recover fee payments from students, including from wealthy students. Three universities have requested approval for overdrafts, as they are experiencing shortfalls. We are, however, not giving names of the institutions,” said Qonde.
“We are concerned universities are not able to recover debt. The institutions are taking reasonable steps, under the circumstances. The status quo is that the universities are finding it harder to recover debts, but they are still working on their processes.”
Earlier on Wednesday, the SA Union of Students (Saus) hinted at another series of crippling mass protests after making its presentation to the Heher-led commission of inquiry.
“We are very disappointed by the slow pace of the commission and the arrogance portrayed by Judge Heher. We are very disappointed and we are putting it on record that we have the masses of our people behind us and we are going to meet in the streets,” Saus secretary-general Sthembiso Ndlovu told reporters.
“They have told us that for the past six months they have been dealing with logistics. As a union, we are now going to travel the length and breadth of this country, interacting with our students in mass meetings at institutions of higher learning. We will be reporting on what happened here today.”
Ndlovu said a way forward regarding the students’ reaction to the high fees paid at universities would be discussed and found at those mass meetings.
“If students say let us go and study at the Union Buildings, or let us go and study at parliament — who are we to defy the mandate given to us by the students? We are very disappointed,” said Ndlovu.
Saus was first to make submissions to the Heher-led commission of inquiry into the burning issue of higher education funding.
Four Saus leaders — president Avela Mjajubana, deputy secretary-general Fasiha Hassan, treasurer-general Misheck Mugabe and Ndlovu — took turns making submissions to the commission. At the end of their submissions, the student leaders were upset because the inquiry had no questions for them.
“We were listening to the spokesperson of this commission this morning (on TV), when he told the nation that Saus would be presenting and there would be a panel of experts to probe our presentation. It seems as if we are finishing but there is no probing to our presentation and I do not know whether our presentation was that satisfactory (to the extent) that there isn’t even one single question,” said Mugabe.
“I want that question answered, judge, so that we can have comfort. It seems like now we’re in church where the pastor preaches and we say amen and go home. What is the panel of experts saying about our presentation? We want to know what is your thinking, as a panel of experts appointed by the president.”
In July, President Jacob Zuma extended the deadline by which the commission of inquiry should complete its work.
The commission, announced by Zuma in January following last year’s countrywide protests over the escalating costs of higher education, was meant to complete its work in eight months.
Last year a number of university campuses were shut down after the #FeesMustFall campaign gained momentum and even saw students storm parliament. This led Zuma to announce no fee hike for the 2016 academic year.
The public hearings continue on Thursday.
– African News Agency (ANA)