It has become clearer that government will not address the funding deficit for poor university students any time soon.
In his 2014/15 budget vote speech on Tuesday, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande announced that R8.8-billion was allocated to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) for loans and bursaries. This is only a slight increase from the R8.2-billion currently managed by scheme.
University loans and bursaries make up only R3.9-billion of this R8.8-billion allocation, while R2.1-billion is for further education and training college bursaries.
The NSFAS will also be responsible for R2.4-billion set aside for scarce skills bursaries, including the new teachers’ scheme, Funza Lushaka.
But the NSFAS budget Nzimande announced falls way bellow what is needed to gear the scheme to fund all qualifying university students.
Nzimande’s department first announced in 2010 that NSFAS was facing a crippling funding shortfall, which could be reversed by a tripled budget.
NSFAS is a loan and bursary scheme introduced by government in 1999 to give poor matric-holders access university education. It has opened doors to about 1.4-million people since then.
The Mail & Guardian reported last week that Nzimande’s ministry was not committing to quashing the enduring shortfall, but it wants to “manage expectations” amongst needy students that its study loans are available to all.
The official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) on Tuesday cited the NSFAS’s underfunding for refusing to support Nzimande’s budget.
Yusuf Cassim, the DA’s spokesperson for higher education and training, said the NSFAS budget for 2014/15 “depicts a mere 0.96% increase from the previous budget”.
He said the minimal increase indicated that thousands of students would be turned away from universities in 2015. Protests broke out at a number of higher institutions at the beginning of this year when students learnt there were no funds for them.
“I warn you, honourable minister, for the umpteenth time, that this crisis will snowball next year as the 50% of eligible NSFAS applicants, turned away this year, will now have to compete with a new batch of matriculants to pursue their futures.”
Cassim told the National Assembly he “cannot in good conscience support a budget and plans that are destined to fail our people, particularly the poor and vulnerable”.
“The budget and plans of NSFAS, both in the short and medium term, reflect … a department that is either completely out of touch, or is determined to bury its head in the ground whilst students suffer en masse.”
A new report of the National Assembly’s portfolio committee on higher education has confirmed that the NSFAS reached only half the student population that qualified for funding this year.
“The NSFAS budget shortfall was a concern because applications for funding exceeded the available resources, thus NSFAS could only fund 50% of the eligible students in the undergraduate programmes,” said the committee’s report.
Universities underfunded too
It is not only subsidies for poor students that were insufficient, but the government also underfunded the country’s 25 public universities.
The report explains: “It was noted with concern that growth in higher education was not commensurate with funding and this has contributed to overcrowding in lecture rooms and staff demoralisation.”
But this isn’t the first time Nzimande has been made aware of the problem. A ministerial committee he commissioned last year, chaired by Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, confirmed that higher learning institutions were gravely underfunded.
The committee’s report said state funding of higher education in real terms had been declining over the years.
Between 2000 and 2010, state funding per full-time equivalent (FTE) enrolled student fell by 1.1% annually, in real terms, it said. This was while tuition fees per student increased by 2.5% annually, in real terms.
In his foreword in the report, Nzimande himself blamed inadequate higher education funding for the “fact that the participation rates of African and coloured students in higher education remain low compared to whites and Indians”.
“This is untenable – both from a social justice perspective, and in terms of meeting the demands of the 21st century and the needs of our economy,” he wrote.
The report urged government to “increase the funding for higher education to be more in line with international levels of expenditure”.
Regarding the NSFAS, the committee was clear that “there needs to be continuation of the steep increases in [its] funding to enable universities to award deserving students higher allocations that are more in line with the real cost of study”.