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South African Universities Get R1 Billion to Clear Student Debt

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South Africa’s minister of higher education and training Naledi Pandor has announced that the department is going to settle student debt at some of the country’s tertiary institutions.

Pandor said on Monday that an additional R967 million has been allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to settle the historic debt owed to universities by some 52,514 students.

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NSFAS is a government-funded financial aid institution that offers bursaries and low-interest loans to students from families with a combined annual income of less than R350,000.

"This is a significant contribution which will alleviate some of the debt owed to universities by students and is confirmation that government is sensitive to the plight of students from poor and working-class families," said Pandor, making the announcement.

Her announcement comes almost three months after students in various South African universities went on strike against lack of funding and other challenges also faced by students in South Africa.

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South African tertiary institutions have been protest zones since 2015 when students across the country joined the Fees Must Fall movement, which demanded universities scrap fees for students from poor families.

And even though former president Jacob Zuma annouced in 2017 that the state would fund education for students from households with a combined annual income of up to R350,000 (about US$25,650) starting in 2018, little seems to have changed.

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In January, students at WITS university in Johannesburg, Durban University of Technology (DUT) in KwaZulu-Natal, Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) in Pretoria, and Mbombela in Mpumalanga went on strike to protest financial exclusion.

The R967 million allocated by Pandor will benefit students who were funded by NSFAS before 2018 — when the institution was allocated significantly higher funds by government — and before the government announced that it would fund fees for students from families that earn a low income.

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Students with historic debt are not allowed by institutions to register new courses. They also can’t graduate or receive their academic transcripts.

Explaining why NSFAS, which struggles with issues that include poor administration, is getting more funding, Pandor said: “We have found that 52,514 NSFAS-qualifying students who were registered for the 2018 academic year owed universities R967 million.”