The national lockdown has forced the University of Pretoria (UP) to implement online distance learning, while campuses and residences remain closed. Students will not be using various facilities, utilities, and services during this period, which raises the question of whether UP will reimburse some tuition and residence fees. As South Africa faces an economic recession, many students and universities are rendered financially vulnerable, and the dilemma of whether or not to pay fees can be the difference between UP’s financial viability, and students’ financial ability to pay their debts.
Since the suspension of all physical classes on 16 March until the end of the first semester on 17 June, students have been absent from campus for 62 days. The end of the first semester online does not mark the return to contact classes, but it depends on how the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds. Rikus Delport, UP’s spokesperson says, “following the lifting of the lockdown, the university will continue with online teaching and learning and will abide by the decision and direction of National Government. This process will be communicated to students once we have received the appropriate mandate”.
“As South Africa faces an economic recession, many students and universities are rendered financially vulnerable…“
Based on a presentation named “Plans for Academic Year 2020 and response to COVID-19 pandemic” by the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology dated 21 April, students will likely not be allowed to return to campus and residences until the peak of the virus has passed. Current scientific projections estimate that COVID-19 cases are most likely to peak in July or August and thus contact classes might only be resumed in September.
In other words, there is a high possibility that students will not be allowed to access campus or residences for approximately five months in total as contact classes are suspended.
During this time period, students will not use UP’s facilities, utilities and certain services physically, hence the question of what a student pays for becomes significant. Delport explains that a student “pays for, among other things, the student’s tuition, access to facilities, including the library, student-related services, such as health and security, computer and laboratory equipment etc”. Delport also noted that a student’s residence fees cover “accommodation and food”.
Online classes do not have a drastic impact on tuition fees, Delport explains that “preparing for, and presenting teaching and learning online require[s] considerable financial commitment, and could in certain instances be more expensive than contact classes owing to the cost of the technology involved”. Regardless of the fact that students are not living in residences, Delport relays that there is almost no impact on residence fees, “as salaries, rates and taxes, insurance, among other things, still need to be paid, and facilities continue to be managed and maintained”.
“the dilemma of whether or not to pay fees, can be the difference between UP’s financial viability, and students’ financial ability to pay their debts.“
UP has not answered the question of whether tuition and residence fees will be reimbursed at all. Delport says “the university is doing everything it can to salvage the academic programme and it is too early to determine whether students will be reimbursed”.
Tuition and residence fees are vital to ensuring UP’s financial viability and the mass reimbursement of fees might financially compromise the university.
This issue was addressed in the minutes of a recent meeting between the SRC and UP Executives. It is written in the document that “the Vice-Chancellor pointed out that the matter of fees could not be considered in isolation. The University’s income streams are limited (namely, government subsidy, earmarked grants, fees, and donor funding in the form of scholarships). Reducing income from fees would have to be considered as part of the comprehensive budget”.
The strict national lockdown has compromised South Africa’s economy and a recession with a projected 6% contraction of the GDP is anticipated by many. To reimburse fees in this financially stringent time would possibly place UP in jeopardy. Delport told PDBY that “the university has a sustainability plan in place to ensure it can deal with the possible impact of an economic recession. Part of the plan is to continue and strengthen our efforts to cut costs wherever possible and to ensure we operate efficiently on all fronts”.
“the university is doing everything it can to salvage the academic programme and it is too early to determine whether students will be reimbursed“
Many citizens, including students and their families, have been socio-economically affected by the pandemic as thousands are left without an income during this time. Students are expected to pay half of their fees by 30 April, and the full amount by 31 July. After comment the dates have been postponed by two months, to June and September. As a result of the economic impact, many financiers might not be able to afford the tuition. This raises additional concerns such as whether students will be academically excluded if they can not pay their tuition and/or residence fees. Concerns also centre on what will be done if a student cannot afford food and necessities and whether these financial deadlines will be pushed later into the year. Reimbursing university fees might not be feasible, at the moment or in the future, but Delport assures students that UP is “committed to providing all [the] students with the necessary support to ensure their success, and all faculties are developing strategies that will ensure that all students have access to the teaching and learning opportunities provided by the university”.
UP has been forced to adapt to the restrictions put in place by the South African government. In the face of a recession and distance learning, there are still many issues that need to be dealt with by UP. Delport explains that “the situation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic is very fluid and circumstances might change at short notice. [UP] will continue to update students and staff, and encourage them to visit the university’s website and follow the social media platforms for regular updates”.