We have taken note of the national student financial crisis and we share your concerns. Student funding and the impact it has on access to higher education is high on the agenda of Stellenbosch University (SU).
Last week, the University confirmed that all first-time entry students are able to register. Returning senior students with confirmation of funding in the form of a bursary or loan are also allowed to register if their confirmed funding exceeded their debt of the previous year. These students are exempt from having to pay the first compulsory instalment at registration. In addition, returning students with no outstanding debt are able to register and can enter a formal three-month payment arrangement for the first compulsory instalment at registration.
The University has also extended its registration period in line with the national call and due to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding delays. We will thus accommodate registration requests until 26 March 2021, and the online registration system has been reopened to align with this decision.
We are happy to confirm that to date we have managed to register 19 480 undergraduate students compared to 18 794 at the same time last year.
Access to SUNLearn
We acknowledge that students who have been unable to register are running the risk of falling behind academically, due to not having online access to study material. We have therefore arranged that students with outstanding fees will have access to SUNLearn while they are assisted, on a case by case basis, to find solutions that will deal with their debt and allow them to register. The Student Debt Task Team discussed below is involved in this process.
Access will be granted based on the programme for which the students were registered last year. If there are any issues with regard to access to SUNLearn for any elective modules, please contact Ms Belinda Durelle at email@example.com. Note that this access will be terminated at the end of March for all students who at that stage have not registered for the 2021 academic year.
NSFAS appeals and allowances
Over the past few years, we have engaged with NSFAS, and the Department of Higher Education and Training to see how we as a sector can address the financial needs of our students. While these important conversations are ongoing, we as an institution, have committed to ensure that no academically deserving student be left behind due to their financial circumstances.
The University has made institutional funds available to assist students who are waiting for the outcome of their NSFAS appeals. NSFAS requires that students pass a minimum of 50% of their required academic modules per annum to qualify for the continuation of their NSFAS bursary. Students who did not meet this requirement have to appeal to NSFAS for funding.
All our NSFAS students who were funded in 2020 are currently receiving allowances for their learning material, meals, private accommodation and travel. The payment of allowances is an automated process, and our Centre for Undergraduate Bursaries and Loans has, up to this point, disbursed R44 390 000 to 2 637 of our senior returning NSFAS students. This number represents almost 80% of our estimated total number of senior NSFAS recipients for 2021.
We are currently waiting for NSFAS to release the list of first-year students that will be funded. Once we receive the list, the disbursement of allowances will commence.
We are also working hard to ensure that NSFAS funded students, who reside in private accommodation will be able to pay their rent instalments at the end of March 2021. The Centre for Undergraduate Bursaries and Loans has appointed additional temporary staff to scrutinise lease agreements of private accredited accommodation towards this purpose.
Student Debt Task Team
We have established a Student Debt Task Team who annually works towards removing financial blockages that would prevent students to register. The task team is a collaborative initiative between the Centre for Undergraduate Bursaries and Loans, the Postgraduate Office, the Division for Student Fees, Stellenbosch University International and the Students' Representative Council (SRC).
In 2020, the team secured R3 million in funding, which was used to settle outstanding study fees for students in need. Currently, the task team is focused on assisting the last 543 non-registered senior undergraduate students, as well as some postgraduate students, to secure funding for outstanding student fees. An online form has been developed to assist students with the application process. Requests for the form can be addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University has also pledged support for the #Action4Inclusion campaign. This funding initiative is aimed at ensuring academic inclusion by settling outstanding study fees for students in need. The initiative was established by the SRC and Prof Thuli Madonsela, who holds the Law Trust Chair in Social Justice in our Faculty of Law, with the support of our Development and Alumni Relations Division (DAR).
The University, through DAR, is also committed to creating various other sustainable partnerships with organisations and donors to secure bursary funding for students. Besides #Action4Inclusion, several fundraising campaigns have recently been run online, including #MatiesMakeADifference, #Train4Fees and #MaskedMasterpieces.
We have also ensured that postgraduate students have access to funding. During the next three years, the University will invest R120 million in postgraduate bursaries. This injection of funds will make up for the decline in bursary funding from the National Research Foundation. These bursaries are available on a competitive basis to any student in South Africa who is interested in studying at the University.
Collaboration with student structures
At SU we value transparency with our students, and in this regard members of the Finance Division met and consulted with the SRC Executive regarding tuition and accommodation fee increases as well as funding. In addition, the Division of Student Affairs held registration workshops with the SRC and various student structures and student volunteers in November 2020 and February 2021. These workshops equipped students with the necessary information to support their peers during the registration period. We are committed to continue working with the SRC and other student structures in finding feasible solutions to these and other pressing matters.
We are well aware that the student financial crisis is one that cannot be solved immediately, and that work will have to continue within the sector to ensure that all students have access to higher education, regardless of their financial backgrounds.
At SU, we are convinced that an integrated approach to managing student debt and facilitating registration will ensure that the University is accessible to qualifying students from all backgrounds, including those who face financial barriers to participation in university education. We are committed to working collaboratively with the sector and with you, our students, to find viable solutions to the crisis, whether at our own institution or within the wider higher education sector.
We thank our colleagues in the Registrar's responsibility centre, Student Finances, Undergraduate Bursaries and Loans, the Postgraduate Office, SU International and the Task Team for Student Debt, as well as our SRC for their commitment to resolve these matters.
Wishing you all the best with your studies this year!
Dr Ronel Retief