FMF 2021: Historic debt, the missing middle and free education explained

The Daily Vox has put together 10 questions we want to answer to better understand Fees Must Fall 2021 – not just as the protests are happening currently, but also to contextualise them. One of the issues driving the protests is the battle of students in the so-called “missing middle”; another is the problem of historic debt faced by NSFAS students.

Read more: Fees Must Fall 2021: here are 10 key questions

There’s lots of talk about “historic debt”. What is that?

Historical debt is ruining students.

The term refers to the portion of tuition expenses that National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students must pay on their own. It can also refer to the debt that students who don’t qualify for NSFAS accrue from year to year. We know that NSFAS is supposed to cover qualifying students’ fees – but sometimes it doesn’t cover the total. This leads to what’s known as historic debt – and students trying to find ways to pay the balance of those fees. Universities often block those students from continuing their studies until that historic debt is settled. It mostly relates to students who entered the university space before 2018. This is because the introduction of free education is supposed to have addressed that particular issue. 

Sibongile Mncwabe, NSFAS Chief Corporate Services Officer said historic debt refers to money owed to the university by a continuing NSFAS qualifying student who were registered under the loan cap regime (meaning pre-2018) academic year and they were funded on a family income threshold of R 122 000 per annum.

Read more: Special editorial: the state of Fees Must Fall – 2016 edition

When former president Jacob Zuma made his free education announcement in 2017, he said that historic debt would be dealt with by NSFAS and the Department of Higher Education and Training. “The matter in relation to the management of NSFAS debt due to its complexity will be dealt with by the Minister of Higher Education and Training after due diligence has been undertaken by the Department of Higher Education and Training; Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation and the National Treasury to determine the quantum of funding required,” he said back then. 

While some universities allow students to register regardless of their historic debt, this isn’t always helpful. This might allow a student to register for a particular academic year, but it doesn’t magically do away with that student’s historic debt – especially if they entered the university space prior to 2018. This just means they will accumulate more debt. That’s why one of the demands during the 2015-2016 protests, and again in 2021, is the call for all debt to be cancelled.

According to Universities South Africa (Usaf) CEO Ahmed Bawa the student debt at the country’s 26 public universities stands at about R14 billion. He said there wasn’t an exact breakdown of this debt, but it’s assumed most relates to non-NSFAS students. “The reason for this is that the government has from time to time paid the universities amounts to cover the debt of NSFAS qualifying students. And of course, since the new bursary system was put in place in 2018 NSFAS qualifying students received bursaries that completely covered their cost of studies and should therefore in principle not generate any debts,” Bawa told The Daily Vox. 

Deputy higher education minister Buti Manamela announced that the department planned to reveal a strategy within the next three months aimed at addressing historical debt at universities.

“We cannot have this unsustainable debt situation because universities will basically collapse and so that’s the one thing that will be involving all the stakeholders in coming up with a sustainable solution,” Manamela said.

The next thing to understand is the concept of the missing middle. 

I’ve heard people talking about students in the “missing middle”. What’s that?

The missing middle is a category that was written about in the Department of Higher Education and Training’s White Paper in 2013. In it concern was expressed “about students whose family incomes fall above the NSFAS threshold for support, but below the necessary threshold to obtain commercial loans.” 

In the White Paper, the department recognised that it would be an important challenge to find resources to address students who were part of this “missing middle” category. However, nothing concrete was done. 

In 2021, students who fall into this category are still fighting for their right to enter the higher education space. 

Hang on, I’m confused. Isn’t free education a government policy

In 2015, students at universities across South Africa protested around the issues related to funding, outsourcing of university staff and decolonisation of the university curriculum. A zero percent increase in university fees for 2016 and an increase of not more than 8 percent for 2017 was announced. In 2016, students took their protests to the Union Buildings and Parliament.  Zuma announced “free education” for students from poor and low-income families in 2017. 

A month before Zuma’s announcement, the Heher Commission on Free Education released its report. The Fees Commission (Heher Commission) was appointed by Zuma to investigate the feasibility of fee-free higher education and training. From the outset, many students expressed their concerns about the process. In its report the commission acknowledged that everyone has a right to further education. But, it went on to say, totally free education is not in the best interests of South Africa’s higher education sector and that “those who can afford to pay must pay”. 

Read more: All South Africa’s commissions of inquiry listed 

A month after the Heher Commission on Free Higher Education released its long awaited report, Zuma announced changes to higher education funding. During the African National Congress (ANC) national conference in 2017, Zuma said: “The provision of fully subsidised free education and training will be extended to all current and future poor and working class South African students at all public TVET colleges starting in 2018 and phased-in over a period of five years.” 

Read more: Free Education at last? President Zuma announces sweeping changes to higher education funding 

He also said: “As a result of this substantial increase in subsidy to universities, there will be no tuition fee increment for students from households earning up to R600 000 a year during the 2018 academic year.” This decision marked one of the final big decisions made by Zuma. During the same conference, he was replaced as president of the ANC by Cyril Ramaphosa and a few months later he resigned as president of South Africa. 

All students who received a NSFAS loan before the President’s announcement of free education in December 2017 need to repay the loaned amount as per the signed loan agreement form.

But even before the mass protests of 2015-2016, the government was already talking about free education. In the 2013 White Paper, it mentioned that: “The DHET remains committed to progressively introducing free education for the poor in South African universities as resources become available.” The White Paper observed that a recent study commissioned by the Minster had found that “fee-free university education for the poor in South Africa is feasible, but will require significant additional funding of both NSFAS and the university system.” 

This was mentioned as there was an acknowledgement of the many challenges facing higher education. The challenges spoken about as far back as 2008 were declining state funding, limited diversification of revenue sources, increases in tuition fees and an increasing demand for support for financially constrained students.

Read more: Why The Protests? Education Is Still Not Free 

In 2019, Ramaphosa said free education was being phased in over a five-year period until all undergraduate students who qualified in terms of the criteria could benefit. But there was no commitment to students with historic debt or those in the missing middle. 

Read more: How Serious Is The Government’s Plan For Free Education?

For now free education applies to first year students only. Bawa said the bursaries were not repayable, meaning qualifying students receive enough for the full cost of their study. 

“But there are still thousands of students who fall outside of the NSFAS threshold in family income and there is no national system to support them,” said Bawa. 

That’s why the protests continue: free education for all as students have called for it has not been realised. 

In the next piece in our 10 Questions series, we will look at why the protests continue.

Image by Nadia Bana