Wits University Vice-Chancellor Professor Adam Habib highlighted what he calls a nationwide university debt crunch, as many students complain that they have completed courses and graduated, but cannot get their degree certificates from institutions because they still owe tuition fees.
An open letter written recently by unemployed graduates complained that they were having difficulty getting jobs because prospective employers were not willing to accept a confirmation letter but wanted to see an actual certificate as proof of the qualification.
Leaving aside whether this widespread practice is legal – and it is certainly not very moral – the reality is, as Habib remarked, that students who are suffering most are those from the “missing middle”.
This is the group who do not qualify for aid from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme because their family income exceeds the R350,000 annual threshold. However, in many cases, these supposedly “better off” families cannot afford to pay fees and the debt piles up.
Free tertiary education – the “gift” Jacob Zuma gave the nation in 2017 before leaving office – therefore does not help middle-class families struggling to educate their children and make better lives for themselves.
And there is the crux of the problem in this country – it is the middle class which is being squeezed.
Even as families claw themselves up out of poverty, for every two steps they take forward, they seem to be forced to take one step back. Fuel prices are rising, VAT has increased, education costs are spiralling and dodgy taxes like e-tolls are further adding to the burden. And now, Eskom wants to hike power prices by 15% a year for the next three years.
No successful nation has become so without a thriving, and growing, middle class. It’s about time government started looking after this vital group.