South Africa's "missing middle" is one persistent problem that the country has long been attempting to solve and deal with.
The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and the Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, have made multiple suggestions and developed potential solutions when it comes to alleviating some of the challenges faced by "missing middle" students.
The "missing middle" is the term given to students who are considered to be "too rich" to receive funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), but are not rich enough to pay for their studies completely out of their own pockets.
For years, this group of students have been excluded from pursuing and completing tertiary education, especially due to the steep increases in university and college tuition fees each year.
These fee hikes were actually the catalyst for the #FeesMustFall movement of 2015, lead by frustrated students in a panic about how they (and their families) were now going to afford their studies.
For "missing middle" students in particular, this issue of financial exclusions has prevented thousands from continuing with their qualifications or even graduating.
There have been discussions between the DHET and respective universities to ensure that fees remain affordable for lower-income, working-class and missing middle students who wish to further their education.
The solutions that the DHET has been developing are certainly pricey, so the Department has made the decision to branch out and ask South Africa's banks for financial assistance.
Responding to a recent parliamentary Q&A, Nzimande said his Department was engaging with commercial banks and other financial service providers regarding a loan scheme that will finance missing middle students.
“It should also be noted that the work to find a long-term solution to missing middle student funding needs is ongoing," noted the minister.
Nzimande explained that the decision to engage with the banking sector follows recommendations presented by the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) he instructed to conceptualise a new student comprehensive financial aid model for the South African Higher Education and Training System.
According to the Minister, the MTT explored different loan models, including a direct lending model, wholesale lending model and credit guarantees.
The MTT recommended that in the immediate short-term, government should explore the possibility of a government guarantee for commercial bank loans.
The Department is currently engaging with the banking sector to explore the options for a credit guarantee model with the commercial banks and other financial service providers before an application for a credit guarantee can be submitted to National Treasury by the Minister.
In addition to these loan schemes, a "comprehensive" funding model has also been in the works.
Nzimande also reiterated that the Department is currently working within the policy framework, and will avail loans and bursaries and direct these efforts toward students located within the scarce skills categories.
While "missing middle" students can take out student loans to continue funding their tertiary education, there is the possibility of growing student debt, which is another major problem in South Africa.
This problem will only continue to place pressure on the South African economy and poses a real threat to the sustainability of our Higher Education institutions if the Department does not develop affordable and tangible solutions to ensure that this number will not grow further in coming years.