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Wits' response to the national higher education financial crisis

- Wits University

Professor Zeblon Vilakazi unpacks the issues and details Wits’ support for students.

“The issue of student funding is a national, system-wide issue, which Wits cannot solve alone,” says Professor Zeblon Vilakazi, Vice-Chancellor and Principal of Wits University. “The state and other social actors have a critical role to play in resolving this crisis. We need an urgent national debate on this crisis and our students need long-term, definitive solutions to funding higher education.”

Vilakazi also clarified issues related to registration and the 2021 academic year; student support; engagement with the SRC; the provision of financial aid, scholarships and bursaries by; and concessions made to enable students to access higher education.

Student Debt

“It is worrying that student debt amounts to approximately R1 billion now, almost double what it was at the end of 2017,” adds Vilakazi. “But we remain committed to assisting as many academically talented students as possible to register, within the possibilities of the resources that we have available. We have to ensure that the University remains financially sustainable and that we continue to offer quality higher education.”

Student Exclusions and Debt 

“It is not true that Wits has excluded 6 000 - 8 000 students,” says Vilakazi. “This number refers to all the students who owe Wits money over the last seven years, including some of whom have dropped out and others who have been academically excluded for failing multiple times, and who have lost their bursaries as a result.”

  • About 1 200 students have requested financial assistance from the Wits Hardship Fund in 2021 and Wits has already assisted 750 of these students who meet the criteria.


  • Wits has registered 95% of its 2021 student cohort (35 841) out of about 37 500 students, including most first year students. There are still two postgraduate intakes in July and September.
  • Wits has extended registration to 19 March 2021 for undergraduate students and to 12 March 2021 for postgraduate students, to provide students with more time to register, and to fully benefit from the academic programme.

Academic programme and student support

  • The academic programme commenced on Monday, 8 March 2021 with 25 000 students logging on to the new learning management system.
  • Students who needed laptops were loaned devices that Wits couriered to their homes, along with 30GB of data per month.

Engagement with the SRC

  • Wits’ management representatives have had several meetings with the SRC since January. The University has repeatedly reached out to students and remains committed to engaging with students.
  • The University has responded in writing to the SRC’s demands. Read Wits SRC’s Demands and Management’s Response.

Student financial aid, scholarships and bursaries 

  • Approximately 27 000 of the University’s 37 500 students are on some form of financial aid, scholarship or bursary.
  • Wits administers over R1 billion in financial aid and scholarships every year, of which R100 million is funded from the Wits Council budget.


The University has made the following concessions to help students facing hardship to register:

  • Established a Wits Hardship Fund worth R10 million to assist students who are experiencing financial hardship and who have historical debt (up to R120 000) to register and to secure accommodation, provided that they meet the criteria.
    • In 2021, Wits received approximately 1 200 applications for assistance, of which more than 750 have already registered. The SRC has also been empowered to bring any special cases to the Wits Hardship Fund Committee for consideration.
  • Established a once-off R10 million Vice-Chancellor’s Covid-19 Student Relief Fund to assist students who have been adversely affected by the pandemic
  • Bridged the gap for students who are still awaiting for NSFAS funding (some R300 million)
  • Allowed students who owe less than R10 000 from the previous year to register
  • Allowed students to pay 50% of the debt (if above R10 000) to register
  • Charged no interest on fees accrued in the 2020 academic year
  • Provided significant rebates to students for the 2020 academic year
  • Allowed students who are unable to pay the full amount owing to enter into a payment plan by signing an Acknowledgment of Debt agreement with the Fees Office. This payment plan enables students to pay off their fees over the remainder of the year. Students who meet the obligations of the payment plan are not charged interest.

“Wits remains committed to enabling access and to assisting students as far as possible within the resources that are available. We must keep the doors of learning open and remain financially sustainable,” concludes Vilakazi.