Student debt is a “national crisis” that is not unique to South Africa, Wits University vice-chancellor and principal, Professor Zeblon Vilakazi said on Thursday morning.

Vilakazi was responding to the Student Representative Council’s (SRC) concerns about historical debt and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme following the police shooting of a civilian during student protests outside Wits University on Wednesday. He was addressing journalists in a virtual media briefing ahead of Blade Nzimande’s announcement regarding the cabinet’s decision on NSFAS which is expected later on Thursday.

“The issue of student funding is a national, system-wide issue, which Wits cannot solve alone,” Vilakazi said.

“The state and other social actors have a critical role to play in resolving this crisis. We need an urgent national debate on this crisis and our students need long-term, definitive solutions to funding higher education,” he said.

Vilakazi said it was “worrying” that Wits University’s student debt had risen to approximately R1 billion, which was more than double the R450 million it was owed in 2017.

“The higher education crisis has been here for decades and this is not a South African problem, this is a global problem. Student debt in US is about 2 trillion USD,” he said.

“But we remain committed to assisting as many academically talented students as possible to register, within the possibilities of the resources that we have available. We have to ensure that the University remains financially sustainable and that we continue to offer quality higher education.”

Vilakazi also clarified issues related to registration and the 2021 academic year; student support; engagement with the SRC; the provision of financial aid, scholarships and bursaries and concessions made to enable students to access higher education.

“It is not true that Wits has excluded 6 000- 8 000 students. This number refers to all the students who owe Wits money over the last seven years, including some of whom have dropped out and others who have been academically excluded for failing multiple times, and who have lost their bursaries as a result,” Vilakazi said.

He said about 1 200 students had requested financial assistance from the Wits Hardship Fund in 2021 and Wits University had already assisted 750 of these students.

He added that Wits University had registered 95% of its 2021 student cohort (35 841) out of about 37 500 students, including most first year students. There are still two postgraduate intakes in July and September. Wits has extended registration to 19 March 2021 for undergraduate students and to 12 March 2021 for postgraduate students, to provide students with more time to register, and to fully benefit from the academic programme.

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Presh JM Reporter

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