Cape Town - Stellenbosch University's (SU) graduation week has ended on an extra high note for 166 graduates.
Thanks to donations amounting to R8.1 million, a total of 82 postgraduate and 84 undergraduate Maties are set to take on their next academic journey, or enter the world of work, debt-free.
Karen Bruns, senior director for Development and Alumni Relations, the division tasked with raising funds for the university, said: "We appealed to loyal donors of the university and have to date raised R8.1m towards student debt. We are immensely grateful for this support.
“The portion of the funds that is allocated to postgraduate students will fill a large void created by NSFAS when earlier this year it stopped funding for, among others, the postgraduate certificate in education and postgrad law students,” said Bruns.
Debt is increasingly becoming the biggest obstacle for many students in higher education, with some forced to abandon their studies because they are unable to pay student fees.
Professor Stan du Plessis, chief operating officer of the institution, said: “At Stellenbosch University, the outstanding debt for the graduating class of 2021 stands at R16.3m, affecting 433 students in total.
“These figures exclude the debt of government-funded students which currently stands at R13m for 289 NSFAS students and R11m for 106 Funza Lushaka students.
"One of the biggest risks for universities is unpaid student fees, and this continued to rise in 2021,“ said Du Plessis.
“In 2011, student debt in the sector stood at R3.3 billion and has since risen to R16.250bn in 2020. On average, students carrying debt upon graduation owe more than R30 000 each,” he said.
According to Du Plessis, SU commits a substantial portion of its income – generated through state subsidies and student fees – to student bursaries each year, but the institution is experiencing increased financial strain as subsidy and fee income has come under pressure.
“Significant amounts of outstanding student debt further exacerbate our concerns, since we cannot simply write off debt without the required reserves,” he said.
Bruns believes that debt affects graduates' ability to launch into the next chapter of their lives. "We need skilled young people to enter the world of work, to be able to compete for jobs and to convince potential employers of their abilities. Residual debt affects their credibility, morale and confidence detrimentally.”
She said the fund-raising office was doing what it can to alleviate student debt as part of the university’s Annual Fund, Bridge the Gap.
“The Annual Fund strives to remove the barriers to student success – barriers such as food insecurity, funding for feminine hygiene products and funding for students whose professions of choice require that they have a driver's licence.
“But the largest source of crisis for students is debt, outstanding accounts that could prevent registration and continuation of study and the ultimate stumbling block – debt on graduation.”
Funds are being raised for a number of initiatives under the umbrella of Bridge the Gap, among them #GradMe, #Action4Inclusion, #Zim4Zim and Caught in the Middle, which specifically look at alleviating student debt.
“For many students who are struggling under the burden of debt, graduation time is often bitter-sweet. These generous contributions from donors now give them the opportunity to pursue professional careers without the shadow of financial stresses hanging over an otherwise bright future,” Bruns said.
SU conferred 5 629 qualifications at hybrid graduation ceremonies this week, including a record number of 677 Master's degrees, the most in 10 years.
For more information on Bridge the Gap and how you can get involved visit https://www.matiesalumni.com/bridge-the-gap-annual-fund/