Major court ruling about forcing universities to graduate students with unpaid fees

The Johannesburg High Court has twice ruled in Wits University’s favour after a father tried to force the institution to allow his daughter to graduate — despite owing R100,000 in fees.

The Sunday Times reports that the daughter had been allowed to register for her final year of study after an agreement was made between Wits University and her father, Nathaniel Makhubele.

This agreement involved Makhubele paying R35,000 towards the settlement of the outstanding fees and then signing an acknowledgement of debt for the balance.

However, the Johannesburg high court found that Makhubele had not complied with the terms of the acknowledgement of debt.

“On his own admission, he failed to pay the amounts owing to the university pursuant to the 2022 acknowledgment of debt and acknowledged that an amount of R98,000 remained due and payable as at April 2023,” said acting judge G Meyer.

While Makhubele had offered to provide a fresh acknowledgement of debt, Wits University refused to accept it a second time.

“He argues that the university unreasonably refused to accept a cession of a court order granted in his favour in this court [in a separate matter] against a third party where the court ordered the third party to pay to him an amount of R1.4m,” said Meyer.

Wits registrar Carol Crosley successfully contended that “there is no provision in its rules and regulations for students to pay fees by way of the cession of a court order.”

The saga continues

Following Judge Meyer ruling in Wits University’s favour on this matter, another application was submitted by Makhubele that would compel Wits to allow his daughter to register for the university’s bachelor of education honours programme.

This was dismissed by acting Johannesburg high court judge Steven Budlender — to Makhubele’s disappointment.

“Wits engaged in self help by taking the law into its own hands as it unconstitutionally sought to recover an alleged debt, which became prescribed on or by 31 December 2022, without first obtaining a court order,” Makhubele told the Sunday Times.

He added that both judgements “are the subject of pending applications for leave to appeal and hearing dates have not been allocated by the learned judges as they must hear these matters”.

Wits University spokesperson Shirona Patel said: “two judges found in the university’s favour yet the father persists in dragging us to court on the same matter.”

“While this student may not have participated in her graduation ceremony, she still receives her academic transcript which confirms that she completed her degree,” added Patel.

This was in response to Makhubele complaining that his daughter had not found a teaching post as she could not register for the South African Council of Educators (SACE) without her degree certificate.

Universities struggle with non-payment

Makhubele’s non-payment is a drop in the ocean in the grand scheme of university fee non-payment.

A report by the Sunday Times claims that universities are owed “billions of rand” by “tens of thousands of students.”

According to spokesperson Rikus Delport, the University of Pretoria alone was owed approximately R530 million in student debt at the end of 2022.

Delport said the problem had been amplified by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) “unfunding” about 800 students.

Spokespeople from the University of Johannesburg and Sefako Makgatho Health Sciences University said their student debt numbers stood at R667 million and R845 million, respectively, as of June 2023.



The #FeesMustFall movement in the mid-to-late 2010s highlighted the battles of non-paying students and universities needing fees to fund their programmes.

The movement was at its most destructive in 2015 and 2016, and it was estimated that protestors had caused between R700 million and R800 million in damages.

In October 2016, universities provided the following damage estimates to MyBroadband:

  • University of Johannesburg — R120,295,000
  • University of KwaZulu-Natal — R82,000,000
  • North West University — R54,046,169
  • University of the Western Cape — R46,000,000
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University — R6,600,000
  • Tshwane University of Technology — R5,073,747
  • University of Zululand — R4,500,000
  • University of Cape Town — R3,200,000
  • Free State University — R2,800,000
  • University of Witwatersrand — R2,044,000
  • Rhodes University — R250,000+

It is important to note that these were not the final costs incurred by these universities, as the protests were ongoing at the time of estimation. MyBroadband published a comprehensive breakdown of the damage at the time.

Now read: Students attack security guards – What the #FeesMustFall protests really look like

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Major court ruling about forcing universities to graduate students with unpaid fees