The Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Witwatersrand is aiming to raise over R21 million to assist students at risk of being financially excluded.
According to the SRC, 8 142 students were at risk of being financially excluded. The university said while more than 8 000 students owed fees, that did not mean they would be financially excluded.
The total included students whose bursaries and National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) were delayed – and had not yet registered.
“This does not mean that they will be financially excluded,” Wits spokesperson Buhle Zuma said in reply to News24 this week.
But SRC president Mpendulo Mfeka maintained that 8 142 students were at risk of being excluded, claiming that had been made public to the media by the Dean of Students.
In reply to News24, Mfeka said: “I think it should be somewhat expected that the institution would reject the number.”
The SRC said the majority of the students facing exclusion were black and from working-class and low-income families, meaning their being cut off from the institution would result in “mass exodus of black and poor students from the University of the Witwatersrand”.
Mfeka said the SRC embarked on a fundraising initiative to raise over R21 million for the students at risk.
He said they had reached out to non-profit organisations and companies for support.
“We sat and looked at the numbers and figures; there are 8 142 students that need to register and for all of them to come back to the institution we would need to raise R21 million because what happens is that they need to settle at least 50% of their debt and [that] equates around what we are raising,” Mfeka said.
Mfeka said while there was confusion about the actual number, according to their records, 8 142 were owing.
He said SRC decided to intervene and raise funds because it felt student debts did not only affect them but their families, who, for some, looked forward to them graduating so they could be breadwinners at home.
Mfeka said he was also receiving calls from students informing him that their bursaries were not going to fund their 2020 and 2021 fees because of the impact of Covid-19.
“And so a lot of people are at financial risk and our strategy is to try and help those people to get back into the system,” he said.
The university said it was aware of the adverse impact the pandemic had on students and their families, adding that it was also impacted along with the entire education sector.
“Government support has declined in real terms, and student debt has increased dramatically due to the effects of #FeesMustFall, the economic downturn, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other factors,” it said.
Despite its constraints, the university said it had made several concessions to assist students, including establishing a Hardship Fund worth R10 million and allowing students owing less than R10 000 from the previous year to register.
For students owing more than R10 000, the university said it required a settlement of 50% for them to register.
“In addition, approximately 27 000 of the university’s 37 500 students are on some form of financial aid, scholarship or bursary.
“Wits administers over R1 billion in financial aid and scholarships every year, of which R100 million is a provision made from the university itself. Last year, about 900 students received assistance from the Wits Hardship Fund,” it said.
Despite the interventions, the institution said it believed there was a need for more support and therefore supported the SRC’s drive to raise awareness and funds to support students in financial need.