I am writing to give you some context about the discussions the University of Cape Town (UCT) executive has been having with the Students’ Representative Council (SRC) to ensure that as many academically eligible students as possible are registered quickly and efficiently. It is important for all registered students to be able to start the academic year on time and to continue their studies without interruption or the trauma of unlawful protest. Many UCT students and their families have made substantial sacrifices to attain and have access to this education.
The issue of fee blocks and financial exclusion is one that South African universities struggle with every year. The UCT Council has approved a policy that guides the university in dealing with financial exclusion. Every year we review and improve the measures we have in place to balance two necessary objectives: to assist academically eligible students to register and continue with their studies; and to ensure the financial sustainability of our university so that the academic project can continue.
The sad reality is that some students are still unable to register, because of the size of their debt and their inability to contribute any amount to reduce that debt. In one case, a student’s debt came to more than R400 000. While financial exclusion of any academically eligible student is a hard decision, we have a fiduciary responsibility to the UCT community to ensure that the university can continue to function. We have been accountable by communicating UCT’s position and student financial aid interventions.
The university’s cumulative historic student debt currently stands at over R385 million. More than half of this amount is for 2022 fees. UCT cannot maintain a financially sustainable university under such conditions of financial insecurity. So we have to implement UCT’s Council-approved “fee block” policy in order to deliver the quality education that you, as students, expect and deserve. But at the same time, we have increased the level of fee debt at which students can still register from R1 000 to R10 000, allowing an extra 3 400 students to register this year.
We remain committed to supporting financially vulnerable students through a series of measures that we have communicated previously. As a result, about 4 100 students who started this year with fee blocks have been able to register for the 2023 academic year. UCT has budgeted R355 million for student financial aid in 2023 – more than doubling the allocation over 2022, even though the university is operating on a significant deficit budget for 2023.
We remain grateful to UCT fee payers, who are paying tuition fees for students. Tuition fees are the biggest source of income for UCT, especially as government subsidies have declined in recent years.
In its meeting of 6 March 2023, UCT Council considered the position of the executive on this matter as well as the SRC’s proposal to lift the fee block as a blanket concession for academically eligible students. Council did not support this proposal.
Instead, the UCT executive is exploring different measures, along with the SRC, to assist students with fee blocks. For instance, we have made a further R5 million available for this purpose on condition that the SRC matches this amount through fundraising efforts supported by the executive. In this way, we can further respond as a community to assist those who are financially challenged.
We have also established a new partnership with a private entity and, as a result, R5 million has been made available to clear 2022 debt.
While addressing fee blocks will remain a tough balancing act, we know that with the commitment of all the stakeholders, including our fee payers, UCT will continue to provide world-class teaching to each of you.
With kind regards
Professor Sue Harrison
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