This is how to break the student debt stalemate

Ideas

This is how to break the student debt stalemate

It reportedly stands at more than R9bn, but there are ways to address the crisis and avoid the harmful, annual dance

Columnist

In chess, it is called a stalemate. When both players can no longer win, the match is declared a draw and the game is over. The disruptive protests this week at universities such as Wits in Johannesburg and, much earlier in the year, institutions such as UKZN, signal the obvious — we have reached a stalemate on the issue of historic debt.

The accumulation of student debt reportedly runs north of R9bn. That’s a lot of money for any country. For individual students from poor to middle-class families, the problem of mounting debt is quite simply devastating in its consequences. In a vain attempt to recoup some of it, universities refuse to allow students to register for the new academic year. It is a dance all too familiar to me from my years in university administration. I can see the problem from both sides.

For the university, the steady decline in state funding (in real terms) over many years puts the institution at huge financial risk. Ignore the problem and many of our public universities will simply collapse. It is as simple and straightforward as that. To even gain 10% of outstanding fees means adding millions to the coffers. Letters of demand are issued, debt collectors are employed and access to academic results or certificates are denied — until you pay up. University administrators know there is no realistic way of recouping most of the outstanding funds, but it is the marginal gains that keep the practice of collection and exclusion going from one financial year to the next...

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