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Tuition arrears bring tension to S. African colleges

Good-enough Kodwa and his fellow students at the University of the Western Cape on the outskirts of Cape Town got a late start at college this year.

About half of the 14,000 students here have fallen behind in tuition payments, leaving the university $10 million in the hole. So when students arrived this month for the new academic year, they found empty classrooms and locked residential halls. University officials had more than 300 students arrested for trespassing when they refused to leave the campus."Certainly I owe money," said Kodwa, a social sciences major who is president of the student body. "But to say you are late in paying means you are able to pay. A lot of people here aren't late - they just can't pay."

Western Cape officials reopened the campus after striking a deal with students that gives them until the end of February to come up with a debt repayment plan and also pay this year's fees of $900. Those who miss the deadline will be shown the door.

It is an uncharacteristically harsh stance for a state-run university that has historically welcomed South Africa's neediest students, but Western Cape's rector, Cecil Abrahams, says the free ride is over. Students must pay up, he says, or the country's poorest universities will not survive.

The same hard line is being heard nationwide. On Friday, officials at the University of Fort Hare, the alma mater of President Nelson Mandela, began evicting thousands of students under an urgent court order.

At the end of last year, students owed South Africa's 21 public universities more than $100 million in overdue fees, with about 80 percent of that unpaid money due institutions that enroll mostly poor blacks and people of mixed race.

The 10 so-called historically disadvantaged universities that were established under apartheid remain the only avenue for a university degree for thousands of impoverished students who do not meet more stringent academic and financial requirements of traditionally white-oriented universities. And unlike their white counterparts, the black universities have little or no endowments to tide them over during hard times.

"These institutions have felt they have a historical mission to accept those students," said Tembile Kulati, the former director of the Forum for Historically Disadvantaged Universities. "But it is a double-edged sword because those students don't usually have the resources to pay, and most of the universities don't have the mechanisms to collect the money after the students graduate."

In a country long ruled by a white-minority regime that imposed lower standards of education on blacks, the 4-year-old African National Congress government has been overwhelmed by the financial demands of rectifying the past.

About 21 percent of the national budget goes to education, but with so many needs, the ruling ANC has opted to pump most of that money into primary and secondary schools.

That has left many university students resentful. The end of apartheid, they say, was supposed to bring equal opportunity and better education, not locked lecture halls and higher fees. Tuition this year, on average, has increased 15 percent, according to the Education Ministry, pricing many students out of an education.

"We have had a contest with students who believe Freedom Day meant higher education would be free," Education Minister Sibusiso Bengu said. "Based on the resources we have ... higher education will not be free in this country."

The funding disagreement goes deeper than the issue of who should pay. With unemployment at about 40 percent, the ANC government wants to direct more students away from universities and into technical colleges, known here as "technikons," where costs are lower and it is believed that they will gain more employable skills. The process is already under way, with nationwide university enrollment down 2 percent since 1995 and enrollment at technikons up nearly 8 percent.