The real leak in out education

2010-01-19 10:18

DEAR Minister, with the matric results

behind us and pupils streaming back to school, ­inevitably the focus is on

post-school education and training.

One of the critical issues in this regard would be how students

will finance their way through tertiary education. I am aware that you have

commissioned an inquiry into this matter and this letter is my small

contribution to this important debate.

One of the key ways of ensuring that the fruits of our freedom are

­enjoyed by all is by making quality ­education at the highest level


Education is society’s investment in its human capital for its own

­development and progress.

It is as much about socialisation of a new generation to the norms

and values of society and the world as it is about nurturing inquisition and


After all, these are the critical tools for any progressive

development. Having a good-quality higher education system is how the most

­advanced levels of development are supposed to be ­obtained.

Equal access to higher education is affected by a number of factors

­including qualifications, admission criteria, policies on registration,

examinations and progression as well as financial means, among others.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) deals only with

those aspects pertaining to ­financial means. Consequently, any discussion on

the scheme that does not take into account the role of ­other stakeholders,

including higher education institutions and other related government

institutions, would be incomplete.

The architecture of the


The central role of the scheme is to provide financial assistance

to ­financially needy and academically suited students. In pursuit of this

mission, NSFAS has developed a ­financial means test in order to identify those

among its applicants who would be considered needy. In this context a sliding

scale is introduced to disburse funds ­according to varying levels of need.

This means that the poorest, and on this basis the most deserving,

are provided the full cost of study (FCS) as determined by NSFAS and the least

deserving are provided minimum assistance, on the assumption that their parents

will make up the ­difference.

The assumption of the parents’ ability to fund the gap is often

­untested. Most students in this category would have parents who earn an income,

but ­often not enough to finance their children’s higher education ambitions.

The options they have are to secure additional assistance from other donor

funders that might be available to the institution or loans from banks.

The majority of these students would often not meet the strict

criteria of these ­donors and therefore not qualify for the first ­option. They

are also often disqualified from bank loans as their parents are sometimes

deemed not creditworthy by financial institutions.

As a result of this, the majority of these students are unable to

fund the gap between the NSFAS minimum funding and the institutions’ FCS. This

is society’s false promise: what the students see as a glimmer of hope turns out

to be nothing more than a mirage. The institutions are often forced to carry the

burden of the escalating debt of these students who are in a ­financial twilight

zone. This is the biggest shortcoming of the scheme.

Compounding this problem are those who do not qualify for NSFAS

funding at all. According to the ­NSFAS means test, their parents earn enough to

be able to fund the education of their children. Yet the fact is, they often do

not have these resources.

Since inception, the scheme’s budget has grown from R441 million in

1991 to just more than R3?billion last year. This is against the backdrop of

increased demand and the escalating costs of higher education. The result is

that the scheme has ended up funding a large number of students inadequately,

provoking the question of whether we should rather be funding fewer students

more adequately.

The practice of distributing the allocation made to institutions

equally to all the qualifying applicants is prevalent in some institutions. This

often undermines the progressive distribution formula of the scheme. The

consequence is that nobody gets adequate funding.

The failure of the funding system has resulted in continued

exclusion of students with good academic ­potential on the grounds of financial


Consequently the initial investment by the scheme on behalf of

society in these students is lost as the labour market treats them as though

they have never seen the door of a university, given their failure to complete

their courses.

Academic suitability is determined through the admissions policies

of the various institutions. Consequently, by relying on the admissions policy

of the institutions, the scheme assumes that their criteria are always


A review of the throughput rate of NSFAS students suggests that

this assumption needs to be tested vigorously.

Various institutions have different criteria for admission, with

poorer universities often requiring lower points for entry.

In this context, for a similar course, well-endowed historically

white institutions (HWI) would ­demand higher matric grades than their

historically disadvantaged ­institution (HDI) counterparts. The former often

face higher demand for admission than the latter which ­admit walk-ins at the

start of the academic year.

Compounding this problem is the fact that most of these students

are often not well informed about the ­career paths available to them. As a

result, they choose courses of study for which they have neither the aptitude

nor the academic potential to get through successfully.

Some institutions have introduced a four-year programme for those

students they deem to have ­academic potential who but do not fully meet the

admission requirements. In this case they spread the curriculum over four

instead of three years.

This begs the question: Why have we not introduced a four-year

­degree programme which is so common in many other countries with more stable

and effective ­senior- school education?

Successful funding schemes elsewhere would set minimum academic

qualifications for the students they sponsor, play a role in assisting them to

ensure that they pursue study fields where they have greater prospects of

success and participate in providing support to see them through their course of


The disintegrated nature of these interventions has reduced the

scheme ­to a welfare project throwing money at a problem with less than optimal

outcomes. As a result, a culture of entitlement has crept in where poor students

feel they are ­entitled to funding by virtue of their social status, regardless

of their ­academic potential.

This means that one of the major dysfunctions of the scheme has

been the fact that it may have been funding financially needy but academically

unsuitable students.

NSFAS in fact makes provision to fund students over a period of

five years for a three-year degree and gives incentives by reducing the loan

portion for those who complete within the time.

This has resulted in academically suitable students with limited

financial resources missing out. This is where the waste of public ­resources


As already argued above, education is a means to socio-economic

empowerment. The streaming of our population to differently resourced

institutions ostensibly based on matric results and affordability may be

constituting a new form of disadvantage based on race, disability and class,

with the latter two being more pronounced.

In this scenario the black working class and particularly the

children of the unemployed, who continue to be disadvantaged by the system,

­remain trapped in the cycle of ­underdevelopment, poverty and marginalisation.

What I recommend

The government should seriously consider the establishment of a

higher-education admissions central clearing house, as in other countries, so

that the criteria are uniform. This would enable the state to determine which

students have academic potential and therefore qualify for financial support.

This need not take away the right of individual institutions to set their own

admissions criteria. However, it would enable the government to direct students

to various options that may be available, which would include higher education

institutions (HEI), further education and training (FET) or even schemes

supported by the National Skills Fund (NSF) or Sector Education and Training

Authorities (Setas).

Such a clearing house should be afforded resources to enable it to

provide career advice and other ­related infrastructure to help students make

informed choices about their course of study.

Some students may be directed to finishing schools in order to

upgrade certain subjects and enable them to make an easier transition through

post-school education. In this context NSFAS would provide support to students

on condition that they follow the recommendations of the clearing house.

With the new changes in governance, it should be possible to refer

those students who do not qualify for admission at HEI to either FET colleges or

programmes sponsored by the NSF or Setas.

These interventions would ­ensure that the limited funds are

directed to where there is greater potential for positive results, rather than

shooting in the dark and throwing money at a problem and praying that it

disappears. As a result of this intervention a lot of money currently wasted on

students with no potential to succeed would be saved.

In this context, institutions wishing to admit students outside

these criteria should be free to do so.

Similarly, students wishing to pursue programmes outside those

recommended by the clearing house should be at liberty to do so if they can find

an institution prepared to admit them – but they should not ­expect funding from

the state.

  • Pityana is

    former chairperson of the NSFAS

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