Student funding for institutions of higher learning is always a buzzing topic of conversation, particularly because access to higher education is one expensive struggle that persists.
Many of the country's current and future students hope to attend a university or college, but not all can afford to do so.
Although sources of financial aid exist, such as scholarships and bursaries, most notably the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), there are still barriers in place that make pursuing higher education a challenge.
Student debt is one of the biggest problems, continuously growing with no signs of slowing down.
The current figure of South Africa's student debt rests at a shocking figure of more than R16.5 billion; a burden that weighs heavy on students, their parents/guardians, and the various higher education institutions across the country.
The enormous weight of the country's student debt poses a threat to the stability of the higher education sector, said Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande.
This cost of debt is about R1.5 billion per annum, which, according to the Minister and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), "could be directed towards infrastructure development and/or growing the academic system."
Rising tuition fees are another headache for students and their parents/guardians.
The increase of tuition fees for 2023 in tertiary institutions across the country has been in talks for a while now, much to the disapproval of student councils, parents, and the students themselves.
Many public universities proposed a tuition increase of between 5% and 7%, which they say will allow institutions to cover the cost of inflation. However, this increase will be strenuous for families and households, as university education will not become affordable for many.
While NSFAS definitely assists students by covering quite a bit of their tertiary education expenses, including tuition, it is not always smooth sailing.
Although NSFAS covers students' fees, the amount of money received is not always enough to cover all their costs, especially now when the cost of living is steep. Many students have complained that even with the help of NSFAS, they are still struggling to afford relevant fees associated with tertiary education, such as rent and groceries.
NSFAS is also notoriously delayed when it comes to communication and paying out its allowances to students on time.
Universities and colleges typically begin their academic years at the beginning of February, and even though many students are lucky to be funded by NSFAS (which takes care of majority of their study expenses), they often only receive their allowances in March.
Since NSFAS-funded students are from financially disadvantaged families, how do they afford tertiary education for the time period when NSFAS is late with paying out its allowances?
In addition, every year when the academic year kicks off, the same problems of NSFAS, student accommodation, financial blocks, and registrations persist and leave students frustrated time and time again, often resulting in protest action.
This year was no exception.
Student protests erupted at various institutions across the country (for the reasons mentioned above), beginning at the University of Cape Town (UCT), and has now spread to the University of the Western Cape (UWC), the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Wits University, North West University, the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) and the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), amongst others.
The above-mentioned problem of delayed NSFAS allowances has played out during this year's protests. Some of these students at these institutions are unable to register for the year due to financial blocks/exclusions as well being unable to pay the required registration fee; NSFAS covers both costs on behalf of its beneficiaries.
NSFAS being delayed with allowances is a problem out of the control of students, but they are ones suffering the consequences. Without registering for the year or their debt being cleared, students cannot continue with their academics which becomes stressful, meaning some may fall behind and may not graduate, even though the academic requirements have been met.
"Over the past [few] years, funding for tertiary education has been declining. Each year, students in the country's tertiary institutions have been protesting over high fees in institutions of higher learning. It is also important to note that funding for university fees has been declining, which then results in hiking their [universities/colleges] fees to unaffordable levels," continued Student Leader, Karabo Mothapo.
Mothapo says that government should set smaller goals when it comes to solving the various issues of higher education, and should take on a "block-by-block" approach.
She added that NSFAS keeps failing to meet the needs of their applicants, who are students in need of financial aid, because they and their families cannot afford to pay for their studies out of their own pockets.
"The saddest part about all of this, is that the poorest of the poor are the most affected in this situation; this then gives the impression to young people that the government does not care about the impact of the educational system on young people, the government does not care about its young people and that the government does not care about the future of it's country," she elaborated. "With education being the ticket to success, you then ask yourself, why is it being stripped away from the students who need it the most?"
Mothapo mentioned that in 2021, NSFAS announced that first-time entering students enrolled in certain courses and qualifications such as BTechs, Diplomas, Bachelor of Education, Bachelor of Nursing, Science, and Postgraduate Studies entirely, would no longer be funded by the Scheme.
First-time entrants are those who have never been registered at any university in the system before and are entering university at an undergraduate level for the first time.
“Too many students are rushing to courses that we are not short of in South Africa, [qualifications] which are oversubscribed,” said Nzimande, as an explanation for the defunding decisions in November 2020.
“This is just breeding unemployment and we are still spending a good percentage of NSFAS money to support students who are not going to get jobs at the end of the day because they are in areas that are not in high demand," added Nzimande.
Mothapo says this decision to defund certain courses and qualifications "completely contradicts the Immigration Act", which dives deep into the critical skills that South Africa desperately needs, particularly in the current period of post-Covid-19.
"Amongst the skills needed, found in the Critical Skills Paper, which NSFAS has decided to stop funding, are General Engineering Manager, General Medical Practitioner, Registered Nurse for Community Health, Registered Mental Health Nurse, University Lecturer, and so forth.
"The defunding of Postgraduate courses and cutting off certain Vocational courses, then presents to us that there is a problem of perception and troubleshooting within the DHET and the Treasury, because this only adds [to] the number of graduates who leave higher institutions of learning with entry-level qualifications, and immediately join the line of Covid-19 Social Relief [of Distress] grants," explains Mothapo.
Mothapo says that the decrease in funding of higher education is "a reflection of a bigger problem, which is the failure of government in its role of job creation; the fact that the private sector only demands a certain type of skill over the other does not reflect that other skills are useless. It only reflects that government consists of a failing number of State-Owned Entities and a failing innovative plan on how to accommodate young people with various skills the public can use and pay for."
Mothapo gave the example of the strenuous electricity crisis South Africa is currently facing, saying that clearly, the country is in need of more Engineers, Electrical Technicians, and Artisans who are able to understand and have the knowledge of energy and energy renewal.
Some of these skills, she says, can be added through Postgraduate education, but which is no longer funded by NSFAS.
"The argument cannot then be that the economy has no demand for certain courses, the argument [is] that the government is failing to use its power to develop, maintain and capacitate infrastructure for the benefit of creating employment and a building a South Africa that can compete on a global scale," explained Mothapo.
Another Student Leader, Lawrence Manaka, says the rising cost of living, which not even the middle-class can afford, speaks to the point of accessibility.
"If the middle-class cannot even afford tertiary education, which is the bracket known as the Missing Middle in universities, the question then is 'what about the marginalised group?', so I think we need to do something about the funding scheme or the resources we already have," says Manaka.
He added, stating that one starting point might be to increase the NSFAS threshold, that determines eligibility for financial aid.
The current threshold stipulates that applicants must come from households that earn below R350 000 per year; Manaka suggests potentially increasing that to R450 000 per year, due to the inflation we've had in recent years.
Missing middle students should be a focus of improvement, says Manaka, because they are at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing higher education.
Missing middle students are those who come from families that earn above the NSFAS threshold, but are still unable to afford the costly price of tertiary education, meaning many get lost in student debt or don't have the funds to access tertiary education at all since NSFAS will not provide financial assistance.
"This means that they [the missing middle] are displaced within [the] system, and which then affects the accessibility part of things; so if there's no accessibility, you're not going to talk about sustainability [of higher education] at all because in the first place, you have ensured that a certain group of people cannot get access to higher education based on affordability," explains Manaka.
Missing middle students are commonly thought of as "not poor enough for NSFAS", but are unable to afford higher education and the costs that come with it.
The current student protests that took place at the beginning of the 2023 academic year are reminiscent of #FeesMustFall during 2015, which was a student-led movement, demanding that increases in student fees be stopped, as well as to increase government funding of universities.