Wits University mandatory vaccines

The Great Hall of Wits on East Campus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Samuel Molepo

University protests: Wits calls for national intervention into debt crisis

After Wits university said that students with historical debt will be able to register for classes, the institution has called on government to step in.

Wits University mandatory vaccines

The Great Hall of Wits on East Campus. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Samuel Molepo

After Wits University announced on Thursday that it will allow qualifying students with historical debt to register for classes in 2021, the university has insisted that the country’s tertiary institutions alone cannot remedy the mountainous debt obligations currently burdening them. 

The Wits University Council called on the Department of Higher Education and Training to step in and assist the institutions with the R13 billion in student debt currently being administered by SA’s 26 universities.

Wits to allow registration for students with historical debt  

Student protests have been ongoing for over a week now, with the country’s aspiring youth voicing anger over about inequalities permeating throughout South Africa’s higher education sector. These protests – many of which have turned violent – have raised the alarm in the Higher Education Department and at various Universities around the country, who have been in talks with SRC regarding waving debt obligations and providing financial support to students. 

In a statement released on Friday 19 March, the Council of the University of the Witwatersrand said that it is “cognisant of the current higher education funding crisis in South Africa”, and said that it “recognises that the debt crisis is a national challenge that cannot be solved by universities alone”.

“We believe that quality higher education has the power to transform lives and positively impact society. Quality higher education creates new knowledge, develops the sophisticated, scarce and critical skills needed to modernise and advance our economy, and fosters socially conscious and active citizens who stand for justice and advance the public good,” they said. 

‘Debt crisis cannot be solved by universities alone’ 

Wits Council’s Chairman Isaac Shongwe said that universities and the educations they provide are critical in the effort to shape and enhance South Africa’s democracy, but said that measures introduced by individual institutions to assist aggrieved students will not be enough to alleviate the problem entirely. 

“Wits University occupies a special place in the hearts and minds of South Africans and a valuable and enduring legacy,” he said in a statement

“The University is the heart of activism that seeks a better world for all, but it cannot bear the burden of the sector and the nation on its own,” he said, adding that the university administers over R1 billion in financial aid, bursaries and scholarships annually, and that it commits over R120 million annually from the Council budget to assist students.

“We recognise that some 27 000 students (out of about 37 500 full-time students) receive some form of financial assistance, and we applaud this contribution from the University.”

But this, he said, is not enough.

Measures ‘not enough’ to address systemic funding issues 

Shongwe insisted that the debt crisis playing out in the education sector is but a symptom of the plethora of financial challenges facing the country, and said that national government needs to play a greater role in assisting burdened students. 

“It is not enough to solve today’s funding crisis, let alone address the systemic funding issues facing higher education and South Africa,” he said. 

“The higher education funding crisis is entrenched in our country’s debt and economic woes, compounded by a global pandemic and the austerity measures that have been imposed. Although Wits continues with its efforts to financially support academically deserving students, the endeavours of universities are merely stop-gaps in a funding void.”