Accessing funding: South Africa’s current education crisis

24 February 2016 | Busi Makhanya | Opinion

When speaking of funding for students, it is important to deliberate the issue of access.

The University of the Witwatersrand was one of the primary sites of the #FeesMustFall movement. Image: Stanislav Lvovsky

The #FeesMustFall campaign has emanated from the outcry brought about by exorbitant and escalating fees at institutions of higher learning, including tuition, registration and accommodation fees. The students’ demands included, among others, the scrapping of historical debt that prevented students from registering at their respective institutions, the scrapping of registration fees, the demand for free education and the abolition of outsourced services for workers in favour of absorbing staff as full-time workers with benefits within the different institutions.

In reply to the protests, South African President Jacob Zuma responded by pledging that the South African government will advance R4.5-billion to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) so that students who qualified through the NSFAS threshold could be assisted with funding. The President’s commitment also ensured that fees would not increase at tertiary institutions in 2016.

The enhancement to NSFAS coffers was hailed by some as a great start. But even with this milestone came the issue of the “missing middle”, a group of students categorised as being “too rich” for NSFAS yet not able to afford the high cost of tertiary education. This cluster of students remains unfunded until a new model can be designed and piloted in the next two years.

Then there is a cluster of students who are simply top performers but struggle to access funding.

Tshikululu recently received applications from 112 students with no funding who applied for the dozen available bursaries. It was during this process that one got to see that there are students already in the higher education system who lack funding. Below are the stories of four students who could be representative of the many students in similar situations who are unaware of funding avenues.

In her application for funding, a fourth-year engineering student from Tembisa wrote in her motivational letter for a bursary: “I am a very dedicated student whose academic record is consistent. I have had an academic average above 60 since my first year in 2012. I am a member of the Golden Key Society at the University of the Witwatersrand, an organisation that is meant for students belonging in the top 15% of the entire university. This is evidence that I am hard working and striving for success despite the fact that I grew up in Tembisa, a township where it is hard to find motivation for further education. I have tried to maintain a good academic record even in the midst of financial difficulties and a poor family background.

“I am an academic oriented person with a strong belief in making an impact through the work that I do. I am motivated by the need to have an impact in the lives of the younger generation in my family, the younger students, and society in general. For this reason I have started tutoring some of the first-year engineering students and giving informal mentoring to those who ask for it. Financial assistance would help me focus more on my studies than on the possibility of either not graduating, or starting a career in debt.”

This student was one of the successful bursars for 2015. She, for the first time, got a bursary after four years of applications. She graduated with six distinctions in December 2015 and got a job with one of the major banks immediately on completion of her studies.

Another young woman hailing from Rustenburg passed her matric in 2013, achieving eight distinctions, but couldn’t register for the 2014 academic year due to lack of funding. She managed to get a partial bursary in 2015 but remains indebted to the university as she cannot afford to cover the shortfall. She remains unfunded.

A carefree and spirited young woman from Mpumalanga lives with her unemployed father and three siblings. Their income is from the grant the family receives from the Department of Social Development. When she registered at a top university two years ago, she had no money other than the registration fees the family collected for her and her belief was that she would be granted funding somehow. She attended until August of that year when the university excluded her on the grounds that she was unable to pay her fees. She went home, only to re-register in 2015 with no promise of funding.

She was successfully awarded a bursary as one of the dozen students, and passed with an average of 63% for all her modules.

A young man’s mother from the east of Johannesburg managed to raise a bank loan of R50,000 towards his son’s university fees. This amount only covered a portion of the fees required by the university. The mothers’ fear was that if her son didn’t get a bursary, he might have to drop out of university and she would still be liable for the loan. The young man remains a top performer and achieved a 65% pass rate in the last exams. He was also fortunate to get a bursary after a long struggle.

The provision of funding to students is a way of strengthening the resource base required in the country to have a skilled labour force that is equipped to work in all spheres. Therefore, all students, starting from high schools, must be awarded opportunities to know and be aware of loans and bursaries so that they do not end up being lost in the system in terms of exclusion.

This should be a concerted effort that involves the corporate sector working together with the government to boost bursaries without limitations, thereby attracting a larger base of the top students who can access available funding.