The students are alone in this struggle

2015-11-01 19:35

“When I have control over native education, I will reform it so natives will be taught from childhood that equality with the Europeans is not for them” (Murphey, 1992: 368).  Words spoken by one of the architects of Apartheid, Hendrik Verwoerd who according to Abdi (2003: 93), did not see the point of teaching a native mathematics when he could not use it anywhere in the Republic.

That is because the black child was never meant to be an Engineer, Medical Doctor or an Accountant. His/her job was to serve their master or work in the social cluster in any of the homelands. Today you often hear our politicians complaining about lack of blacks in certain occupations, partly because Verwoerd and co did a good job of marginalising blacks with our current government ensuring that his legacy lives on. They do this through the systematic exclusions of many South Africans from obtaining a qualification.

Many suggest that there is no exclusion because we have the NSFAS to fund "academically deserving and financially needy" students. In addition to that, you have the National Research Foundation offering funding for postgraduate studies; corporate South Africa (biggest beneficiary of our higher education system) also offering funding with an opportunity to work for them on successful completion of the qualification. So what is the problem? Why are people complaining about exclusion? What systematic exclusion?

One of the key issues is that NSFAS, although made a significant contribution on expanding access to further education and training by supporting over 1.4 million students (Nkosi, 2014),  is unable to provide financial support to everyone who secures admission to an institution of higher learning but does not have the money to pay for their studies. Which is the exact student NSFAS was established to assist.

A perfect illustration of the growing need for financial aid can be found at the University of the Witwatersrand where 22 000 students applied for financial assistance for the current academic year, but the university could only assist about a tenth of that because there were not enough funds available to assist everyone that needed a helping hand (Nkosi, 2015).

But Minister Blade announces an additional billion or two for NSFAS each year, where does the money go? You probably think the thieves in government steal it but Lebeau et al. (2012: 141) point out that although government has consistently increased funding allocations for NSFAS every year, the need for assistance also keeps growing and “outstrips supply” leaving many students who qualify for assistance without funding. And this is actually getting worse because some universities have adjusted their requirements to qualify for NSFAS so that they have fewer students qualifying for funding, leaving thousands out.

An example of this can be found at the University of the Western Cape which used to require that a continuing student has at least an average mark of 50% and promotes to the next level of their study programme now requires a 55% average. You probably think this is low, true but other universities have gone up to require between 60-65%. Why is this a problem? Because the passing mark in high school is not 55-65%, it is much less. As a first year, you worry about qualifying to write the exams which is 40%, now you must worry about 65% so you can stay at university or else you will be financially excluded.

And this makes it even harder for a poor student that is used to passing a subject with 30-40% in high school. 55-65% becomes a big ask for many. What happens to these students once they do not have the financial backing offered by NSFAS? The Ministerial Review Committee (2009: 69) suggests that about a third of the overall number of students funded by NSFAS are currently studying with only 28% of the remaining two thirds having graduated. These are poor students whose families look up to them. The day you get that letter from a university confirming admission is most memorable and fills the parents with so much hope. Hope that their child will at least not be excluded from receiving higher education in the same way the parent was in Apartheid South Africa.

Thus it is hard to get NSFAS funding renewed, and when you cannot get it renewed, the student is likely to dropout which according to De Villiers et al. (2012: 10) makes it difficult to recover the loans from them. That is one of the main reasons why NSFAS has not been able to generate a significant amount of money from loan repayments. And also has a number of administrative issues such as students waiting too long to receive allowances for books, travel, and food.

So for now we can tell that it is not easy to get access to NSFAS funding even if you qualify for it, and once you have access to it, you may struggle to keep NSFAS funding after your first year because well first year is rough. But interestingly the research commissioned by NSFAS found that the dropout rate is higher amongst those who are not funded by NSFAS. So if you thought NSFAS was wasting money funding students, half or greater will never graduate, the situation is worse for  self funded students.

Parents and students drowning in debt in the quest for a better life but in  the end, the student has to work most of their life paying back the loans. This crisis is much worse in the USA where tuition fees are among the highest in the world. One US student in my class chose to study in Europe because the equivalent of R250 000 per year on tuition is much less than what she would have to spend back home.

If tuition fees are a key problem that reserves higher education only for those who can afford it. How can this be resolved for an unequal society such as South Africa? Many have proposed that South Africans should be exempt from paying tuition fees at public institutions of higher learning so that no South African youth will be excluded because of their inability to pay.

I have always been a supporter of free education for all. But a number of concerns have been raised by those opposed to this. The first one is that if you offer free education, you may end up favouring the haves not the have-nots the policy would be aimed at assisting because according to Wangenge-Ouma and Cloete (2008: 915), people in the middle-income bracket and upwards dominate higher education as they are able to access better schools. So the poor would still be left out according to them.

But there are claims that about 80% of students enrolled in institutions of higher learning come from previously disadvantaged backgrounds and attended secondary school in townships with a few coming from rural areas. Part of those who attend schools in townships would have come from rural areas. Noting that the black middle class often send their children to former model C schools. It is also not uncommon to see children of domestic workers attending such schools as their parents sacrifice the little they have for their children's education. So in the main, the majority of students enrolled in institutions of higher learning are indeed historically disadvantaged, and many contest the term 'historically disadvantaged' as they are still disadvantaged.

Thus the claim that offering free higher education may disadvantage the poor may not be entirely valid. In any event that could be overcome with the quota system proposed by the Ministerial Review Committee (2009:  xxii) for admission, provided that such a quota system does not work on the basis of race alone because that may cover those blacks who actually can afford to pay. Importantly that the quota system is actually audited as when Nigeria tried it a while back, universities ended up admitting students on grounds of ethnicity when such students should not have been at university on the basis of their marks. But were admitted because  financially struggling institutions wanted to access state funding.

 Wangenge-Ouma and Cloete (2008: 916) proposed a cost sharing model where the poor pay what they can afford and those who can afford to pay, pay the full amount. It is not clear whether they support free education for the poor because what if you cannot afford to pay anything? In fact we already have some characteristics of that type of funding model that makes education affordable for the poor. NSFAS is that funding model because if you can afford to pay through the expected family contribution after conducting a means test, then you would be in a position to contribute but I've worked for the University of the Western Cape as a student assistant during the registration process and never met a student that could actually afford to pay.

The problem is that there are too many students who cannot afford to pay anything at all. To see this you only need to visit universities during the registration process, start with the historically disadvantaged universities where this is most evident. Also refer to the Wits University example where thousands expressed need for financial aid but the university could not support them all, not even half. In fact more students who do not qualify for NSFAS due to their household income are struggling which prompted the ministerial committee to recommend that the threshold for qualifying for NSFAS be amended.  But that has not been done because that would mean more students qualifying for NSFAS funding when universities are trying to reduce the number of students who qualify for NSFAS.

The committee also recommended that fees for any student that comes from a household with an income not exceeding R300 000pa be exempt from paying tuition fees; those who earn more than that should be granted loans by the State which charges less interest than bank loans (Ministerial Review Committee, 2009: xxiv). The role of the NSFAS in this proposed fully subsidised policy option would be to identify beneficiaries and distribute the subsidy (Ministerial Review Committee, 2009: xxii). And they further recommend quotas on the minimum number of poor students that each public institution ought to admit to ensure that the poor are not disadvantaged by the guarantee of student loans to the well-off students (Ministerial Review Committee, 2009: xxii).

This seems plausible but if you think about the threshold for a minute, you will see that it is not. If your household income is R300 000pa, you get your education free, and graduate debt-free. How awesome this would be but no so if your household income happens to be R310 000. You will graduate with debt. So while your subsidised classmate gets a job and starts building life after university, you will have the added burden of paying off debt, Fair? I think not considering that we both have a qualification that improves our chances of getting a good paying job when compared with a person in the same age group without a qualification.

The other problem with both these proposals is that they do not provide a clear answer on where exactly the money will come from to fund the education. Perhaps because they assume that taxation is an obvious choice but how that would work remains a mystery.

For me the preferred model remains tuition-fee free education, with living cost assistance for the poor. The poor being those who based on an established affordability test are unable to cover costs such as books, food and accommodation. Maybe I have a bit of bias considering that I'm one of hose poor students who could not afford to pay anything. Walking from Khayelitsha to UWC because I could not afford to buy a train ticket that costs a measly R8.50 alone shows how dire the situation can get if you do not have funding.  It always seems unfair to watch others pursue their ambitions while you struggle to hold on to yours.

I do not have an answer for how this could be funded. And many of those who propose solutions tend to speak from a position of privilege and say the student must contribute something. Well consider that when you graduate, we know that over 90% of graduates find a job within the first 3 years after graduation. We also know that the job pays them enough to disqualify them from getting many of the social assistance programmes such as housing, health care, child support grants, free water and refuse collection. So funding a student all the way to graduation actually helps not just the student but the country too. So back the students (note this does not say rich, poor, white or black), just back the students who are the future of this country.

Minister Nzimande's current proposal to convert NSFAS loans to bursaries on completion of the studies will not solve anything. Because more than half do not make it to graduation. We can't just look at the end without looking at what happens between your first enrollment and graduation. For many of us the current funding system is designed to ensure that we do not make it to graduation. This may also stem from our basic education which does not adequately prepare students for higher education. And that makes first year very difficult for many students.

You try to get settled in the new environment with a whole new assessment system where you have to qualify to write examinations. Then you finally qualify and you worry about passing your exams so you can get to 2nd year. And the passing mark is higher than the one you are used to. Note that you are being assessed in your 2nd, 3rd, or 4th language (reality for many South Africans). On top of that you must ensure that your average mark meets the minimum required for NSFAS funding and this is where many of the students who drop out suffer.

When you fail to qualify for NSFAS (academically or on grounds of financial need), your life becomes a mess. NSFAS would give you a books allowance. Now you must study without a textbook, and improve your marks if you failed to meet the benchmark set by your university to qualify for NSFAS. How is it possible to improve your marks when you do not have the learning resources? When that happened to me in 2012, I had a relative who had secured NSFAS funding so I was able to get books, improve my marks and get back to NSFAS. But for many students this withdrawal of financial support when you actually still qualify to be enrolled at university does not make sense. Especially if it may lead to the student being academically excluded because the marks decline without learning resources.

Then there is the issue of food and transport. You may ask what was the student eating at home before they got to university? Well there was a time when I lived on one meal a day (no this is not why I'm so thin). And many students at residences do starve in silence. See some of us depended on the feeding scheme in high school. I recall a time when I had dropped out of school and my little brother would bring food from the aunties at Maitland High. We had nothing to eat at home. I was not even at school but depended on the school's feeding scheme so there is a need for food hence NSFAS offers food allowance to students. But the administration of this is horrible. Students living on bread alone because they are waiting for NSFAS payouts. Add the travel allowance to the student who has to commute.

These allowances are not paid at the start of the academic year when you register. You get students who receive them in May. May is the end of the first half of the academic year and I was once called in November to collect my food allowance. I had already finished writing my final exams then. This is why I had to walk to campus when I actually had NSFAS funding because the financial support is not always available when you need it the most. Not every student will walk to campus so they start missing class and tutorials and we get surprised to see students not qualifying for exams, worse being academically excluded from the university. When you go to your first class, it is always packed but as the year goes, numbers drop, and progression to second year drops too.

So instead of raising the mark for students to qualify for NSFAS when they have already worked hard to be at university, universities should actually do more to back students so that the results we get at the end of the academic year are a true reflection of the student's talent. The task for the universities and the State is to create an environment where a student's job is to study. Where your talent takes you as far as you can go in life. And not be limited by your inability to pay for your studies. Back the students by opening institutions of higher learning for all who demonstrate talent and willingness to use their talent for the development of our beloved South Africa. That is the funding model I support.

And no, the opposition does not offer much of an alternative. If anything the DA offers is an improved NSFAS for those who qualify for it, and a pile of debt for those who do not qualify for NSFAS. They have not learnt from the US student debt crisis at all. I cringed when the DA's Prof Bozzoli cautioned universities against admitting students who had outstanding debt from previous years. So if it were up to her, I'd have been excluded by UWC since I still owe the university money, even if you do well academically.

And the EFF, although claims to support free education, sadly cannot convince the majority of citizens to vote for them, even those who agree with their policy positions would not trust them enough to let them run the country. ANC and the DA want to keep the doors of learning open to a few who are lucky enough to get NSFAS or qualify for the debt trap that is study loans from banks. The EFF can preach the gospel but not trusted enough to actually lead. Sad reality for students that the three largest political parties do not back them. We can only hope the #FeesMustFall movement has taught them one thing, that students will not put up with whatever nonsense the ruling elite subjects them to.

Consulted Articles 

Abdi, A. A. (2003). Apartheid and education in South Africa: Select historical analyses. The Western Journal of Black Studies, 27(2), 89.

De Villiers, P., Van Wyk, C., & Van der Berg, S. (2012). The first five year project: A cohort study of students awarded NSFAS loans in the first five years 2000-2004. Research report for NSFAS.

Lebeau, Y., Stumpf, R., Brown, R., Lucchesi, M. A. S., & Kwiek, M. (2012). Who shall pay for the public good? Comparative trends in the funding crisis of public higher education. Compare: A Journal of Comparative and International Education, 42(1), 137-157.

Letseka, M., & Maile, S. (2008). High university drop-out rates: A threat to South Africa's future. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council.

Nkosi, B. (2014). Nzimande's budget snubs poor university students. Retrieved 2nd May, 2015, from

Nkosi, B. (2015). State Leaves Students High and Dry. Retrieved 2nd May, 2015, from

Ministerial Review Committee. (2009). Report of the Ministerial Committee on the Review of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. Retrieved 18th May, 2015, from

Murphy, J. T. (1992). Apartheid's legacy to black children. Phi Delta Kappan, 367-374.

Wangenge-Ouma, G., & Cloete, N. (2008). Financing higher education in South Africa: Public funding, non-government revenue and tuition fees. South African Journal of Higher Education, 22(4), 906-919.

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