Education is part of the real world


It is time to stop treating education as a separate entity to what happens in the real world. That is one of the primary lessons to be learnt from the recent #FeesMustFall protests that swept like a raging bushfire through South African universities.

The intensity and cohesion of the campaign left government, civil society and institutions reeling and scrambling for solutions that would not only plug the unrest, but provide lasting solutions to the growing challenge of financially supporting deserving students, particularly those from poor homes – households with an annual income of less than R120 000.

One of the priorities must be the formulation of a better relationship between business and the universities without detracting from the independence of universities. This improved relationship must be focused on the relevance of programmes run by the universities.

The problem is that far too many of these programmes are academically sound but are not in demand outside campus. The result is that instead of becoming assets to our society by addressing our serious skills deficit, talented young people, through no fault of their own, are passing through the gates of higher learning institutions straight into the bloated ranks of unemployed graduates.

Not only are these unfortunate, understandably disillusioned people a burden on the economy, they also exacerbate the growing problem of access to funding for poorer students.

The reality is that 60% of students who receive assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) drop out. And if 60% drop out and don’t get work after leaving university, that means 60% of those loans are lost, and cannot be recovered and recycled to help new batches of students.

Our mandate, as the NSFAS, is to raise funding, and provide bursaries and loans to poor students. We have done a great deal. We fund about 460 000 students, but crucially, there are 60 000 students at the 26 public universities entitled to funding who are either underfunded or not funded at all.

That was one of the elements that triggered the October #FeesMustFall protests.

The spark that ignited said protests was the 2016 fee increase that several universities were finalising, but another accelerant was the significant number of students who had accumulated debt and were facing the prospect of being barred from writing exams because they owed money that they could not repay.

Doubtless, the NSFAS could have done better. If we had been more efficient in granting the loans, and post-graduation recovery of that funding had been better, it is possible that we could have supported many more of those unfortunate students. But the problem is far greater than one of efficient lending and recovery mechanisms, though these must be – and are being – addressed.

The reality is that although our budget has more than doubled in five years, it has not kept pace with demand. Spending on higher education has declined in real terms. Compounding the problem is the burgeoning number of aspiring learners emerging from school with university exemptions. They are bent on university placement, but the growth of capacity of our universities lags way behind the swelling numbers of these school-leavers.

That, again, brings us back to higher education’s vital role in providing skills for the country and creating opportunities for employment for all those who benefit from the education, particularly the poor students.

While the NSFAS’s mandate is to support poor students, some things could have been done better. But the NSFAS itself is constrained by underfunding. Government provides a separate R146 million annual administration allocation of the scheme’s R10 billion budget. It is not enough and it leaves the NSFAS to do what it must with one hand tied behind its back so it is, in a sense, being set up for failure.

I have, since the start of the protests, been canvassing the private sector for assistance. The Banking Association of SA, for example, has been amazing. It has seconded a number of people to the NSFAS in the past few weeks to assist us in all sorts of areas, at no cost to the NSFAS.

I am also doing a presentation to the board of Business Leadership SA (BLSA), not just on the NSFAS’s needs, but in terms of support needed by the students and the universities. The BLSA is accumulating information from its members about the bursaries and other support provided to students and universities by corporates. It believes these interventions should be incorporated into a more cohesive approach.

Part of this approach has to do with identifying and communicating what skills and occupations are in greatest demand. We must develop a better relationship between business and the universities so the latter can offer programmes that deliver graduates who are in demand.

What I call an “educonomy” approach will go a long way towards improving the quality of the programmes and the way in which knowledge is produced. But to be effective, we must stop looking at education as separate from what happens in the real world.

What we have to do – which I am actually doing – is to create a platform for people to get involved.

Nxasana is former FirstRand chief executive and is now chair of the board of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

This an edited version of the article published in the Business Leadership SA newsletter for December

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