Are you part of the missing middle?

2016-07-25 06:45

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Attending university is a dream for many young people, but for most it remains just that – a dream. The #FeesMustFall movement last year brought to light the fact that the majority of the South African population cannot afford a university education and the plight of the “missing middle” was brought to the fore - students who are deemed too rich to qualify for government support, but too poor to afford tuition fees.

In order to mitigate the negative impact on higher education institutions that the decline in state funding has caused, tuition fees have been continuously and rapidly raised over the last few years. Between 2000-2010 tuition fees for full-time student increased on average 2.5% per year, creating enormous financial pressure on students and their parents. It has also lead to “privatisation” and “commercialisation” of public higher education, shifting the burden of funding from the state to individuals. The increases in tuition fees also created significant barriers for the poor and working class communities to access universities.

For those who are financially able (or have parents and guardians that are), who are in a position to pay the university tuition, the biggest hurdle faced seems to be getting accepted based on academic standards. On the opposite side of the scale students from low income households who cannot afford their fees have a few options available such as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). NSFAS provides financial aid to poor but academically eligible students, through NSFAS they are able to obtain loans and bursaries at tertiary institutions around South Africa and is a way for the government to support students who are not able to meet the financial commitment of university fees on their own.

Then what is the problem? If rich have enough to pay for their studies and poor students have financial aid schemes to provide them with financial support, why is there such a large movement for free or affordable fees? The problem is the large gap between the rich and poor in South Africa or as it is referred to as the ‘missing middle’.

The family income threshold for a student to qualify for financial support is so low – that they have to be desperately poor to receive it. According to Daily Maverick, in order to qualify for a NSFAS loan your household needs to be earning less than R120 000 a year. Therefore while catering to the poor, this threshold excludes lower middle-class families and children of professionals like teachers, nurses, and members of the police force. The expectation in the past has been that these middle-income families can secure bank loans to finance the education of their children. Unfortunately in the current economy, many of these parents are debt-ridden or do not have fixed assets that South Africa’s risk adverse financial institutions will not grant them a loan. This system essentially leaves out or misses many academically talented children of civil servants whose income is above the threshold but not high enough to afford paying university fees. The “missing middle” – children from middle-income families – are not catered for.

In response, universities have begun to take it upon themselves to seek funding for students in the ‘missing middle, investing significant financial resources of their own to assist financially needy students. University of Johannesburg vice-chancellor Ihron Rensburg said universities needed to empower the country’s next generation of leaders through academic studies. He said the #FeesMustFall campaign last year had successfully highlighted the funding problems facing South African universities. "And we are acutely aware that we have a particular duty to thousands of our students who no longer qualify for government support via NSFAS, but whose families cannot afford to put them through university."

Some universities, such as Rhodes University, use a “Robin Hood” approach: charging higher tuition fees so that they can use money paid by students who can afford it, to subsidise those who can’t. This however may not be sustainable solution in the long run. The University of Witwatersrand's student representative council (SRC) launched an access campaign which by February 21 had raised R3 million.

The SRC at the University of the Free State had raised R1.2 million shortly after launching a similar campaign. Meanwhile the University of Johannesburg has by far launched the biggest fundraising campaign ever undertaken by a South African institution of higher learning. UJ began a fundraising campaign in order to support the 5000 academically deserving students attending their university who fall into the ‘missing middle’. The university currently supports 3500 students and paid for their registration fees and the initial payment for 2016. As of June 2016, the University of Johannesburg has raised R60 million for their ‘missing middle’ students and are still hoping to raise more as to pay for the remainder of the students’ fees as well as seeing to their other needs.

Professor Ihron Rensburg explains why the university is leading the way in missing middle financial funding, “Our job as universities is the empowerment of the next generation of leaders for the South African economy‚ society and governance through academic study leading to concrete‚ sought-after qualifications … as a major university in the country’s economic heartland we have a particular duty to thousands of our students whose families cannot afford to put them through university.”

Be a part of the solution. Donate to UJ’s missing middle financial aid programme HERE


Read more on:    university fees  |  university of johannesburg  |  bursaries

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