Students at Wits are embarking on a strike, demanding the university register all returning students who due to student debt may not be able to continue with their studies this academic year. Wits, UKZN, UFS and other institutions intend to disallow students with historical debt to register, citing financial strains on their costs of operation, if they do not recover this money from owing students. UNISA students have taken the university to court for not filling more than 20 000 seats because of NSFAS’s refusal to provide financial aid.
The issue of financial exclusions at institutional level calls into question NSFAS’ funding as a result of Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s austerity budget. NSFAS has not been funding deserving students whose parents’ income is below R350 000, as promised. And the old problem of debt that NSFAS failed to write off continues to persist amongst working-class students even after the 2017 #FeesMustFall victory.
Going forward, funding will undoubtedly become an issue. NSFAS has already announce that it has cut its budget by R6 billion, and requires an extra R4 billion to cover costs of the extended academic year caused by Covid-19. Even though other students who are returning are guaranteed funding as long as they meet Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande’s undisclosed criteria, the first-year students are not guaranteed bursaries.
SAFTU has repeatedly said that the problem of funding of public services is due to the neoliberal development path that government is pursuing. Despite Mboweni insisting during the budget speech that the budget was not an austerity budget, the cut in the higher education allocation proves the finance minister wrong.
Because of the neoliberal path and the cuts flowing from it, cuts on expenditure of higher education pushes management of universities to rely on tuition fees and hence a fight to recover student debt in order to cover operational costs of universities which rise yearly with inflation. It precisely this reason also, that universities have increased their fees for this academic year.
To fight back, students have to align themselves with workers and their organisations to resist cuts in education. This must culminate into a united front against austerity which has seen the collapse of the public sector, lack of public services in which hospitals are understaffed and under resourced, formal housing is being replaced by the old hated “toilets in the veld” site-and-service system, and even the water minister recently admitted that the share of South Africans with reliable water access is today lower than it was in 1994. It is shameful and makes a mockery of socio-economic rights, that a tyrant finance minister cuts corporate taxes and allows massive capital flight, instead of helping the citizenry when an investment in education will pay off for the entire society..