The 27-strong Board of Directors of Universities South Africa has ruled out the possibility of granting amnesty to student debt accumulated from unpaid tuition and residence fees over the years. All vice-chancellors of South Africa’s 26 public universities said scrapping the close to R14 billion owed universities, collectively, would have a detrimental effect on the long-term sustainability of these institutions.
During a discussion on the state of universities at their first ordinary meeting for 2021, in March, the USAf Board shared information on how three of the Western Cape universities had addressed the student debt. Professor Tyrone Pretorius, Vice-Chancellor and Principal at the University of the Western Cape, said contrary to a perception created in media reports, his institution had neither forgiven nor scrapped students’ debt. The university had simply responded most practically to a situation where, one week before classes were scheduled to begin, UWC had registered only 30% of the expected student numbers. An investigation revealed that the families of many returning students were facing a financial crisis after parents lost their income to CoVID-19. When UWC employed a very aggressive debt collection strategy, executive management decided to allow students to go on and register. However, they required all students who owed the institution to submit an acknowledgement of debt document with a credible repayment plan. By 15 March, UWC had registered 80% of the returning students they had anticipated for the year.
Similarly, the University of Cape Town had offered a grace period to students, allowing them access to the learning management system and attend online classes while they looked for funds to pay the required registration fee at a later stage. Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, Vice-Chancellor and Principal, cited UCT’s bail-out fund as one solution at the disposal of heavily-indebted students and those struggling to meet their tuition fee requirements. This fund, she said, was open to students whose family income was above the NSFAS threshold of R350 000 and to NSFAS students who had not completed their studies within the required N+2 period and therefore lost their bursaries. In 2021, UCT had expanded the criteria for eligibility to this fund to accommodate students whose parents might have lost jobs to the pandemic, and to accommodate postgraduate students. UCT was also fundraising with the aim to increase the bail-out fund beyond UCT’s contribution of R30 million. Professor Phakeng told her peers that students were applying for both the bailout fund and the grace period.
At Stellenbosch University, first-time-entering students were allowed to register without paying an upfront fee. This concession was extended to returning students if they produced proof of a bursary or loan.
In the end, the vice-chancellors agreed that every institution would devise a mechanism suited to its own context to resolve the crisis that arose when student organisations called for a national shutdown unless universities abolished the upfront fees required to register, and met a raft of numerous other demands. The general view was that the current financial crisis could not be solved at the institutional level. In fact the USAf Board agreed that due to the ailing economy, exacerbated by Covid-19, South Africa could not afford the national bursary scheme that was politically declared in December 2017.
The Board meeting took place one day ahead of a meeting with the Minister of Higher Education and Training. That meeting went on to agree on the following:
All 26 universities would determine debt relief mechanisms on a case by case basis to enable academically-deserving students to register and complete their studies without undermining the underlying financial stability of each institution. Specific attention would be given to senior students who were NSFAS grant recipients when it was a repayable debt before the 2018 NSFAS policy framework, and the ‘missing middle’ income students.
Secondly, Vice-Chancellors from all 26 universities affirmed their ongoing commitment to constructively engage with student leadership structures at institutional level to continue to find solutions to the matters affecting registration of students, including financial matters.
Thirdly, subsequent to this Board meeting, Minister Nzimande agreed that a task team would be established urgently to begin work on a longer-term solution to support a comprehensive and sustainable student financial aid system. This process would begin immediately and aim to address both the challenges that are likely to face the system in 2022 and the development of a long term, sustainable student funding model and ecosystem.
This work, it was agreed, would be done collaboratively with the rest of the post-school education and training system to optimise use of available intellectual capacity.
Other decisions of the Board
The National Higher Education Conference – 2021
The Board endorsed the concept document assembled by the USAf Office in respect of the second edition of the National Higher Education Conference. Also approved was the proposed conference theme: The Engaged University. The conference agenda would be conceptualised in such a way that would interweave the engaged university theme with sustainability in its broad sense, looking beyond funding matters to encompass all other aspects of sustainability. The Future Africa Conference Centre at the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa campus in Pretoria was announced as the preferred venue for this event. This conference would be executed in hybrid format and would get underway from 6 to 8 October.
Decisions on governance committees
The Board approved a proposal from the Admissions Committee, to appoint five serving members of the Admissions Committee for a further term of office from 01 April 2021 – 31 March 2024. This will ensure continuity in the Matriculation Board’s transition and winding down during the Section 74 implementation process.
- Professor Cheryl Foxcroft (Nelson Mandela University)
- Dr Dan Mokoena (Vaal University of Technology)
- Professor Sarah Howie (University of Stellenbosch)
- Dr Cila Myburgh (University of Pretoria)
- Ms Carol Crosley (University of the Witwatersrand)
The Board also noted that the South African Private Higher Education providers association had nominated Ms Shirley Ferndale as an observer for a further term.
Legal Advisory Committee
Professor Rushiella Nolundi Songca, the new Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Walter Sisulu University (WSU), was nominated new Chair of the Legal Advisory Committee, thus succeeding Professor Rob Midgley in both this position and at the helm of WSU.
The terms of service of several members of various committees, which were ending on 31 December 2020, were extended by another three years to 31 December 2023. This decision benefitted Professor Carolina Koornhof and Ms Amanda Kort, both of whom are serving on the Finance and Investment Committee; Mr. Saleem Kharwa of the Audit and Risk Committee and Dr Kgomotso Kasonkola and Ms Ms. Moretlo Mokuele of the Human Resources and Remuneration Committee.
Decisions made on Strategy groups
All strategy groups reported on their inaugural meetings for the year and on strides made on their various priority projects. They presented new matters for decision making by the Board, which yielded decisions explained below.
Funding Strategy Group (FSG)
Even though the FSG had no new matters for fresh decision making, they did present findings of the Higher Education Price Index analyses for 2017 to 2019, essentially confirming that the cost of higher education was higher than headline inflation at the time.
Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG)
The Board approved the appointment of Professor Sue Harrison to fill a vacancy on and serve as a new member of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group. Professor Harrison is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research and Internationalisation at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and a Research Chair in Bioprocess Engineering.
Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG)
The following three new members, nominated by their expertise and to represent a range of institutions by type, were approved as new members of the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group:
- Professor Nokuthula Sibiya: Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning), Durban University of Technology (DUT).
- Professor Laura Czerniewicz: Centre for Innovation in Teaching and Learning, University of Cape Town.
- Professor Vivienne Lawack: Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Teaching and Learning), University of the Western Cape.
Transformation Strategy Group (TSG)
The new Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of South Africa, Professor Puleng LenkaBula, was appointed Chair of the Transformation Strategy Group, thus succeeding Professor Mandla Makhanya, both in Unisa’s vice-chancellorship and chairpersonship of this Group.
World of Work Strategy Group (WSG)
The five WSG priorities for 2021 were approved as follows:
- Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) and Internships: this will entail the development of a conceptual framework for all forms of work-based learning and, in particular, to understand the relationship between learning at the nexus of theory and praxis.
- Entrepreneurship: The WSG will seek to strengthen the capacity of universities to a) engage their students in entrepreneurial thinking and projects; b) design entrepreneurial eco-systems, including on-campus and off-campus elements; and c) engage in staff development relevant to building a culture of entrepreneurship.
- Graduate destinations: The WSG will seek to develop systemic approaches to measure on a regular basis the rates and modes of employability, employment uptake of the sector’s graduates; and understand the extent to which there is a match between enrolments, graduate outputs and labour market dynamics.
- Societal changes in work and the impact of new technological trends: There are significant changes taking place in the world of work that have profound consequences for the way in which universities shape their own internal functioning and in the way in which students are adequately prepared for future careers. It will be important to measure the societal impact of the new technology moment on work careers and to identify indicators of this impact to measure trends over time.
- The Fourth Industrial Revolution: The digital revolution that had its first major impact in the domain of information and communication technologies (ICTs) some decades ago has begun to effect major changes in other spheres of material life, including economies. This includes, inter alia, embedded sensors and smart materials, the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, automation, and Artificial Intelligence (AI). This is also made possible by advances in data warehousing, data analytics and machine and deep learning. The new wave of technological changes is bound to have far-reaching consequences for the structures and modes of production of goods and services on a planetary scale. Of particular note is the significant progress that is being made in the areas of AI, automation and robotics. On the one hand, there are deep concerns that millions of jobs will be wiped out. On the other hand, progress in AI and robotics is seen as being at the heart of the 4th Industrial Revolution (also referred to as Industry 4.0) with enormous opportunities for societies and economies, including the prospects of new types of jobs and conditions of work.
Update on the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme
It was brought to the attention of the USAf Board that the first funding phase in respect of EDHE had ended, and that the second funding phase by the Department of Higher Education and Training through its University Capacity Development Programme, was kicking off on 1 April. The Board noted the solid foundation laid in the past four years and the priorities set for the next funding cycle until 2024.
The Board commended Dr Norah Clarke and her team for doing exceptional work of supporting universities to produce well-rounded graduates. “This is exactly what we need,” Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng of UCT said. She proposed that Dr Clarke be invited to present her programme to the Board. In agreement, the Chair of the Board, Professor Sibongile Muthwa, said even though Dr Clarke had presented to the Board before, it would be good to have her present to the new members to enable broad understanding on EDHE. “The students themselves are excited about EDHE so I support this fully,” the Chair concluded.
The next meeting of the USAf Board of Directors will follow in June.