South Africa: Financial aid programs hamper job search for graduates

Poor students suffer the consequences when the national student financial aid program fails to pay universities, which then withhold academic records.

Millen Mndawe, 22, is one of thousands of students at Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) who cannot access their academic records and diplomas because they owe the university money . This is despite being eligible for undergraduate funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

It is common for educational institutions to withhold certificates of qualification if students have unpaid fees. But this practice makes it difficult to pursue studies or find a job. Mndawe says she feels hopeless and stuck after NSFAS failed to pay for her undergraduate degree in human resource management between 2018 and 2020. “Eish! It’s hard,” she says.

His debt prevents him from accessing his third year results. She does know, however, that she has qualified to pursue postgraduate studies toward a graduate degree in human resources, even though she does not know the results of her assessments for her final year of undergrad.

At the TUT graduation ceremony in July 2021, Mndawe was presented with an envelope containing a debt statement in the amount of R40,771 and a letter of completion stating that she met all “conditions prescribed for the award of the national diploma”.

When Mndawe inquired, an NSFAS appeals officer said her tuition had been paid. But TUT disputes this. To obtain his certificates and access his academic records, Mndawe must settle his combined undergraduate and postgraduate education debt of over R70,000.

Prospective employers insist on graduation certificates, so Mndawe’s job applications are rejected because she only has her letter of completion. “The only proof that I graduated are my graduation pictures on the wall,” she says pointing to the pictures on the wall of her house in Phola, Mpumalanga. Mndawe will technically graduate in May but will not receive the actual certificate due to debt.

Inequalities in higher education

In response to a parliamentary question, Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande said on March 16, 2021 that 106,494 students were prevented from receiving their diplomas between January 2010 and December 2020. They owe their respective institutions more than 10 billion rands. At TUT, over the same period, more than 11,000 students have not received their academic records, and the total debt of these students is close to R5 million.

“The historic debt largely affects poor students who have to move from villages to cities to access education,” says Nkanyiso Ngqulunga, an education activist with a background in law. “They face the cost of higher education and the cost of their living expenses. This reproduces inequalities…Those who can afford [it] may graduate and leave for opportunities while poor students have to wait longer, or post their poverty on social media looking for a Good Samaritan to lift them out of their misery.”

Ngqulunga explains that the courts have ruled that law students can be admitted as practicing lawyers even if their certificates are withheld. He adds that withholding degrees exposes the inherent inequalities in higher education, which underscores the need for the “decommodification of education in this country.”

Mndawe is desperate for work and is advocating on behalf of all NSFAS-funded students with unpaid fees to have access to their academic records and school leaving certificates, so they have a chance of finding employment.

Ngqulunga insists that companies should hire people without a school leaving certificate if they can produce a proof of completion letter from their educational institution.

Mndawe has started saving on her mother’s salary, who works as a cleaner. She deposits R500 a month in a bank account and hopes to use the money to pay for the higher degree – but that’s if the NSFAS pays her outstanding undergraduate debt. “Right now I’m stressing out because the NSFAS isn’t paying. On the other hand, I also have to pay for my higher degree. I’m still unemployed. That’s a lot.”

Questions sent to NSFAS regarding Mndawe’s unpaid fees were not answered, allegedly because the Personal Information Protection Act (2013) prohibits the sharing of student information with third parties. “Allegations made against NSFAS by the student through the media will need to be investigated and answered with facts,” NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said. “Once we have completed our investigation…we hope the student will share…the discovery with you.”

TUT did not respond to questions at the time of publication.

Mndawe received a call on March 25 from NSFAS promising to settle the outstanding fees for her undergraduate degree, but she is skeptical about paying the money. The financial aid scheme has not yet solved the problem. “Once I see the changes promised by NSFAS by June 1, I will be able to comment on how getting my certificate will change my life.”

In the long term, Ngqulunga suggests that the government cancel student debt – or that “universities should enter into an IOU with students giving them certificates to seek jobs. No one benefits from withholding certificates. This is so arbitrary and disproportionately affects poor students,” he says.