An open letter written by unemployed graduates highlighted what Wits University Vice-Chancellor Adam Habib has described as a nationwide university debt crunch, with the “missing middle” often the biggest losers.
About 100 students from the Eastern Cape’s Walter Sisulu University (WSU), who owe thousands of rands in tuition fees, said their qualifications were being withheld. This meant they could not get jobs as most employers demand proof of qualifications.
The students were appealing to government to assist, because despite the university issuing letters proving they completed their courses, this did not suffice for most employers.
“Confirmation letters specify that we have completed that specific course. The problem is that companies don’t regard it as a legitimate document,” they said.
Habib said at the heart of the crisis of mounting unpaid debt at universities was that the biggest group of of students owing money to higher learning institutions was the so-called missing middle.
They did not qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, but were still financially disadvantaged and could not afford the fees.
“Free education is only for the poor … and the bigger problem is with the missing middle.
“So free education then does not resolve the problem of the debt which is primarily from the missing middle who do not fall under the R350 000 per annum limit,” he said. “The debt problem is climbing and people may say ‘why are you being so unfair’?
“But who is going to pay for water and electricity and the other costs of running a university? Unions are demanding higher salaries.
“Students are saying they don’t want fees to go up and they are demanding more services. How do you make the numbers work?”
With public funds going to universities dwindling to fund the free education programme through Nsfas, the government’s contribution to universities and other tertiary institutions declined from 49% in 2000 to 39% in 2015, according to the Centre for Higher Education.