30 January 2019

South Africa: Campus Shutdowns and NSFAS Woes Mark Start of the Academic Year

Google 'university registration' and you'll immediately find photos of young people with backpacks and in classrooms, smiling as they hand over documents to official-looking adults, surrounded by green campuses in a seemingly far away land. These romanticised images of university and of the registration process for students is a far cry from what thousands of black students in South Africa have to face on an annual basis at the beginning of the academic year.

The greatest fear when it comes to registration season is whether you will actually be accepted to study another year and whether you will get the funds to secure your seat in the lecture hall.

There thousands of students fill out online registration forms and stand in long queues on campuses around the country only to be told that they will not see the inside of a lecture hall that year. Financial exclusion is a scary and sad reality for so many black South African students and knowing you won't even have the chance to get a degree, that single slip of paper that means so much, that can grow to define the rest of your life, is incredibly disappointing.

After nationwide protests at university campuses in 2015, 2016 and 2017 where students called for fee-free higher education, then President Jacob Zuma announced at the end of his term in 2017 that the state would fund the fees for first-year students coming from households earning less than R350 000 per year. He also said that National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) loans to these students would be converted into grants.

For many students NSFAS is the ticket to that desired degree but even first year students who were granted financial aid in their first year are not guaranteed funding for the remaining years of their degree programme. This year NSFAS approved funding for 300 000 students but rejected 65 000 students, with NSFAS officials claiming that many applications came from households that earned above the income threshold.

"Of the 417 000 applications received, more than 300 000 students have been declared approved, pending registration at public institutions for NSFAS funded qualifications," NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo told News24.

Registration at the University of South Africa (Unisa) was brought to a halt earlier this month when members of the South African Students Congress shutdown the institution's campus in Tshwane after demanding financial aid.

According to a report by The Citizen, the South African Students Congress (Sasco) vowed to make tertiary institutions ungovernable if students who can't pay for registration are turned away at higher institutions.

"We have been very clear - we will make these universities ungovernable if the managers don't appreciate that free education was announced in this country. They think they are going to turn students away because they do not have money, but that is not going to happen." said Sasco deputy president Luyanda Tenge.

The Economic Freedom Fighters Students Command (EFFSC) also vowed to take to the streets should government refuse to meet its demand for fee-free registration at universities, according to News 24.

The Bloemfontein campus of the University of the Free State (UFS) was also shut down earlier this month due to issues around outstanding fees, provisional registration and fee increases.

Mamabolo said that some students who applied to NSFAS had been unsuccessful based on information that the organisation received from credit bureaus regarding their household income but students can lodge an appeal by providing the necessary documentation to NSFAS. UFS SRC President, Sonwabile Dwaba, said that students must appeal as soon as appeal applications open.

Students must get the funds they need to study, and being rejected because of finances means more bright futures are on the line.

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