Ruling on part-time, full-time students
Published by The Mercury 2 December 2015
Students at distance learning institutions can be considered “full-time” students. But each case would have to be evaluated on its own merits.
This was the ruling of the Supreme Court of Appeal in a matter taken on appeal by the South African Local Authorities pension fund over whether it should pay pension benefits to a student studying at a distance learning institution.
The fund had argued that it did not have to pay the benefits because the student concerned was studying part time, but it was unsuccessful in the Durban High Court.
At issue was whether Durban woman Simangele Mthembu could claim benefits from her late husband’s pension fund to pay for her daughter Mbali’s studies.
The fund took a decision in 2011 that Mbali was not entitled to the benefits after she turned 18 because she was enrolled at Unisa, which was a “part-time, distance learning institution”.
Mbali, who is at the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, had been studying for a BCom degree.
According to the scheme’s rules, a child may receive benefits only until the age of 23 if registered as a full-time student. The fund said Unisa did not have any full-time students, but Mthembu said that Mbali had not worked while studying and had attended study groups and tutorials.
The Durban Legal Resources Centre took on the case for Mthembu because it argued that it could have serious implications for other students in similar situations.
The court said the fund’s definition of a full-time student required that the student devote most of their productive time to studying, and was classified by the institution as a full-time student.
But the court said it would be an “unattractive proposition” if Mbali could not be classified as studying full time simply because she did not attend classes, while a “layabout” registered at a traditional university, who missed many classes, would be.
The court also dismissed the idea that students had to be classified by the institution.
The appeal court said the fund had to examine each case on its merits and look at each student’s study commitments.
“This may add to its administrative burden, but is what the rules require.
“It will have to look at the course of study and the commitment demanded of the student, and then decide whether the student qualifies for the pension fund.”
Kamini Padayachee — The Mercury 2 December 2015