THOUSANDS of poor students, many of whom have performed satisfactorily academically, face exclusion as cash-strapped universities and technikons crack down on outstanding tuition fees in South Africa.
Sasco, the South African Students' Congress believes that "no students should be excluded on the grounds that they are indigent".
The country's 21 tertiary institutions are, however, desperate to claw back some of the R470 million (Pounds 59 million) owed. This exceeds the R300 million that the government has made available this year to indigent students through its student loan fund.
Students pay between R7,000 and R12,000 a year for a degree course. The historically black universities tend to charge less than their white counterparts.
Sasco has called for emergency government funding, threatening to march and hold sit-ins nationwide, if funding is not forthcoming to end education "exclusivity". But Teboho Moja, special adviser to education minister Sibusiso Bengu, said government intervention was highly unlikely.
The University of the Western Cape had to close for a day as students protested against the exclusion of students who have R52 million (Pounds 6.5 million) in fees outstanding, nearly a quarter of the university's annual budget.
After a tense five-hour stand-off with heavily armed police, 300 students were arrested for trespass, after defying an order by university management to vacate campus residences.
At the University of Fort Hare, the students' representative council has called for a boycott of the registration process pending a negotiated settlement on fees. A similar call has been made at the University of Durban-Westville, where the student council has vowed that "not a single student will fall prey to final exclusion".
Fort Hare rector Mbulelo Mzamane said it would be irresponsible to allow student debt to escalate further. The vice-chancellor of the University of Transkei, Alfred Moleah, said that there had been frequent talks with the student council to resolve the fee issue, but a free university education was not government policy.
Most of those who owed money were not performing academically and the university would be examining closely students who are making the university "a free holiday resort", he said.
Some R55 million in fees is owed to the University of Zululand, R80 million to the University of the North, R14.5 million to Fort Hare, and R32 million to Durban-Westville.
These are all institutions that have had a tradition of sympathy for the plight of poor, predominantly African, students who were allowed to register even if they had debts, or if they did not have the minimum amount required as a registration deposit.
These debts have accumulated making it impossible to provide financial aid to deserving new students.
The government has now signalled that such disastrous levels of student debt would not be tolerated. Professor Bengu said universities and technikons had a responsibility to manage campuses to ensure that all fees were paid.
An adviser to Professor Bengu, Thami Mseleku, said that institutions had gone "all out" to help disadvantaged students by negotiating ways to pay off fees. Debts had multiplied because students had not adhered to these agreements. "This government has never had a policy of free tertiary education. We are not going to condone non-payment," he said.
A report commissioned by the US-based Mellon Foundation warned last year that there would be a massive shortfall in 1998 funding for disadvantaged students.
Given increased student numbers and inflation, another R137 million will be needed this year to keep financial aid for students at 1996 levels.
At the University of Cape Town, which this year for the first time had to turn away academically qualified applicants who could not afford tuition, communications director Helen Zille said that institutions had been warning the present government for years that the situation was becoming untenable.
"This report was handed to government in October last year. We need to know what they have done with that work," she said.