The short answer
It is usually debt collectors rather than universities that report unpaid debts to the credit bureau. You can check your credit status online.
The whole question
I deregistered for my Masters programme at the start of last year, but the university still charged me the full year's tuition. I cannot afford to pay. Can the university report me to the credit bureau?
The long answer
It is generally the debt collectors that report unpaid debts to a credit bureau, not the creditor (or university in this case) itself.
According to a Daily Maverick article on 13 February 2023, at least 120,000 students were barred from graduating in 2022 because they collectively owed universities R7-billion.
How has the student debt situation got so bad?
The article explains that in 2016, when students owed NSFAS R2.5-billion, NSFAS announced that it had cleared the debts of all students who qualified for its funding and had studied between 2013 and 2015. And then shortly before his term ended, former president Jacob Zuma announced in 2017 that there would be free university education, but did not explain how this would be funded. By 2023, student debt had ballooned to more than R165-billion.
So, this is a crisis both for the indebted students who are often barred from graduating and for the universities who cannot fund their academic programs and run their institutions effectively in the absence of fees.
The article quotes an associate professor at Wits University, William Gumede, arguing that private financial institutions should fund all students with loans underwritten by the state. He says loan repayments should be structured over the lifetime of recipients and tailored to their income after graduating.
“No student with outstanding debts should be prevented from receiving their academic results, graduating or seeking employment,” said Gumede.
But for the moment this is the difficult situation that indebted students are in.
Many universities are using debt collectors to try and recover fees owed by students. Edwin Naidu, in the Africa edition of University World News on 3 March 2023, lists numerous examples of how universities are trying to cope. Below are a few of these examples:
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) requires students to sign an acknowledgement of debt and 50% of outstanding fees must be paid up-front before registration. If needed, the university can take legal action against students owing it monies.
Naidu quotes Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, the vice-chancellor of UJ saying that UJ raises funds to assist academically deserving "missing middle" students. Between 2016 and 2020, UJ raised R916-million, which covered tuition and living expenses for 13,978 students.
The "missing middle" comprises students deemed too poor to afford higher education, yet not poor enough to qualify for funding through NSFAS.
Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University, north of Pretoria, said its debt was R477.3-million at the end of 2021. It said that the university was using a debt collector, phoning and sending reminders to students, negotiating with financial institutions to fund the "missing middle" students, and providing merit awards to students deemed outstanding performers.
The Durban University of Technology (DUT) was owed R960 million. It said it had debt collection strategies such as reassessing the student’s financial situation and ability to pay back and then granting extended payment plans to qualifying students. Certificates and diplomas of students who have graduated with outstanding debt are withheld.
North-West University said that the NSFAS funding model could become a loan scheme (as it was initially when it was introduced) and not a bursary fund so that money could flow back to the scheme when these students have jobs, and it can then be expanded to the so-called missing middle.
You get the picture: all the universities are struggling to get fees from the struggling students because they cannot be effective and efficient without fees being paid. So it seems that most of them are using debt collectors of one kind or another, and if these debt collectors are not successful in getting the debt paid, the debt collectors report the outstanding debts to credit bureaus.
To find out if your debt has been reported to a credit bureau, Uni24.co.za gives the following advice:
If you bank with a local bank, go to your branch and ask them if they have a blacklist database;
Call the National Credit Regulator on 011 712 0000 or email email@example.com;
Check whether any of your names appear on one of their lists on their website at www.ncrcorp.co.za or call them directly on 011 712 0000;
Contact the South African Insurance Association (SAIA) by phone at 011 410 0000, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org;
The South African Bureau for Standardisation and Certification has its own blacklist database and can be contacted by phone at 086 800 5500, or by emailing email@example.com.
But perhaps the easiest way to check is to ask for a free credit report from a reputable credit bureau like Transunion, Experian or Compuscan. A South African citizen is legally entitled to one free report a year.
The information below is copied from Debt Line:
"Often when consumers refer to being blacklisted, they are speaking of an official court judgement that seeks to see them honour their outstanding debts. In cases where the defaulted loan amounts exceed R100,000, it will be up to the High Court to pass judgement. Such a judgement will appear on your credit score for a fixed five-year period, regardless of how soon you pay off the court-ordered amount.
"Where the debt is less than R100,000, the case will fall under the Magistrates Court and will appear on your credit score for a maximum of five years or until you can repay the outstanding loan amounts."
It’s a very difficult position to be in and one that thousands of other students are in, too.
It’s always a good idea to approach the university directly and ask for assistance about how you can best pay off your debt in the situation you are in. If you leave it, you may find that your credit profile is no longer good enough to access loans and so on.
Wishing you the best,
Answered on March 15, 2023, 12:27 p.m.
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Please note. We are not lawyers or financial advisors. We do our best to make the answers accurate, but we cannot accept any legal liability if there are errors.