Varsities intensify crackdown as student debt keeps piling

Universities, schools and other institutions of learning are increasingly turning to the courts to recover outstanding fees owed by students and parents.

Sunday World has established that among the civil cases that come before the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court relating to Section 65 of the Magistrates’ Act, which provides for the collection of debt from individuals against whom judgments have been granted, are those that involve institutions of learning. And universities and schools feature prominently among the cases that come before the court weekly.

In the latest such case, a former North-West University student who owes the institution more than R11 000 in fees was slapped with an arrest warrant after failing to keep up with payments and missing a court appearance. Mmanoko Mabotja, 47, owed the NWU R7 128 in fees since 2021. Her debt had since increased to R11 015 by October 16, 2023 after legal fees and interest were added to the amount.

Mabotja’s offer to pay R500 a month until the debt was settled, was made an order of the court following a financial inquiry at the end of January.

She, however, failed to honour the commitment. Mabotja failed to appear in court last week after failing to make payments towards her debt as per the court order.

Her non-payment resulted in magistrate Leanda Perel issuing a warrant of arrest to ensure that a sheriff of the court would find Mabotja and bring her
to court.

Stella Rasedile, an attorney at Hack Stupe & Ross responsible for magistrates’ court litigation and collection, said civil cases against students and parents who owe fees were quite common.

Rasedile, whose clients include the University of Pretoria and NWU, said the Pretoria magistrates’ court deals with about 40 cases on each day of the two to three days that the Section 65 cases are heard at the court. She said she had 50 active cases with NWU as a client. “Institutions appoint different attorneys to represent them. If I have 50 active cases, it means there are other attorneys who are also representing NWU,” she said.

Rasedile said universities get judgments against owing students to ensure that when they start working, they are haunted by the debt. She also admitted that it was a difficult process to bring people to court.

“People move and don’t notify the university of their new address,” she said.

Rasedile added that when people have moved to other areas then the issues of jurisdiction must be taken into consideration, necessitating finding an attorney in that area.

Rasedile said when students apply for university admission they fill out forms acknowledging that they will be liable for payment of all fees or appoint a guardian as surety.

“So, should a student not be able to pay, a guardian is liable for payment,” she said. Most students in South Africa are funded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds with more than 70% of university students and more than 90% at technical and vocational education and training colleges.

The organisation Universities South Africa revealed that in 2022, student debt stood at a whopping R16.5-billion and that 120 000 students would not be able to graduate because they owed higher education institutions around R7-billion collectively.

NSFAS this year introduced the loan scheme to provide financial support to students whose annual household income is between R350 000 and
R600 000.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said R3.8-billion has been ringfenced to fund the so-called missing middle through the NSFAS loan scheme.

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