We have to turn higher education funding on its head

Graphic: John MCCann

Graphic: John MCCann

The department of higher education and training is running workshops in a bid to find a way out of the annual protests over shortages in state funding for students.

It is hoped effective and sustainable solutions for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds will be found. 

These should entail much more than a mere recommendation to the department to find more money, as was the case with the 2010 ministerial committee appointed by the minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande.

South Africa has a shrinking tax base that has to cater for the ever-growing demands on the fiscus. This cannot be ignored in planning year-on-year priorities.

The announcement after the meeting of the stakeholders on September ?30 does not, however, create the impression that this has been recognised. If anything, it amounted to saying nothing because urging universities to announce NSFAS plans annually is what the institutions are already doing.

But that is not the heart of the problem. The greatest challenge lies in how we use and manage the limited resources.

Deeper problems
Protest actions and property destruction at universities and colleges are symptomatic of the deeper problems NSFAS faces in its current model.

Regrettably, higher education institutions have had this albatross around their necks for many years and, if interventions remain the same, the department is likely to carry the burden for many years to come.

The solution, in my view, lies in a total overhaul of the NSFAS model. Departments of education and local communities should be structurally involved in supporting children to success. I will explain this below.

Prior to that, I would like to highlight the crucial role played by NSFAS in the broader society.

The reality is that NSFAS is, for most recipients, the lifeblood of families because of the socioeconomic conditions in the student’s background. This renders any form of material assistance to individuals less potent than it is intended to be because the resources are shared with the recipient’s family.

Take, for example, the situation I once managed at the University of Pretoria.

There were an institutional nutrition programme, merit bursaries, university funds that NSFAS administered, an access fund known as the Tsenang Loan Scheme and the Tuks “Rag” (Receive and Give) food parcels for needy fellow students, but there was always a need for more assistance.

Colleagues at other institutions confirmed that students were sharing the little they received from the institution and NSFAS with their families. In most cases, NSFAS funds do not cover all the needs students have for their academic success in a given year, let alone subsistence needs.

If this happens at institutions that were formerly white and well resourced, what then is the experience of students in historically black and disadvantaged institutions? Most students are not there because of historical ties but because they do not have the wherewithal to attend the historically white and prestigious institutions where conditions are slightly better.

Students from disadvantaged communities in particular have to deal with more complex problems than tuition fees: they not only need a place to stay, food to eat and books to study but also money to maintain their siblings, or entire families, at home.

Attending university after matric is perceived by some families as delaying or postponing the possibility of uplifting the family from the cycle of poverty that is experienced by its different layers of generations.

Hence the pressure on students when they get to university. They, in turn, panic to the extent that institutions find themselves under tremendous pressure. This is but one indicator of the nature and extent of the problem.

What can be done?
What ought to be done in order to turn the situation around? Three things ought to happen.

First, the country has to ask itself some tough questions. Included among these are questions pertaining to whether the majority of students who spend a number of unproductive years at universities ought to be allowed into the system in the first place and whether they should not be redirected to technical and vocational education and training colleges (formerly known as FETs – further education and training colleges).

We also need to ask whether communities are playing the role they have previously played in ensuring the success of their children. The sooner this is done, the more resources will become available for deserving students.

Second, planning has to take precedence over reaction. This will help the country to move away from the kind of approach to problems that creates the impression that money can suddenly be found somewhere if students make institutions ungovernable (as occurred this year).

Most of the time, unbudgeted additional monies mean that, elsewhere in the system, another important item will be eliminated. Is there no way of finding sustainable solutions as a proactive measure? 

A new model
Third – and this is the proposal I put on the table – NSFAS should consider and explore the following model:

•?Schools should identify and nurture prospective candidates among grade nine pupils whose potential to reach university level might be limited by their socioeconomic conditions;

•?Such candidates must be supported academically and materially. School governing bodies can involve parents in fundraising activities for a fund to support these children and the department of social development could also be involved in certain cases;

•?If these children display the same potential in grade 11 (or earlier), the schools should send lists of such pupils to NSFAS for planning purposes. The government will then know two years in advance that it should budget for X number of students who will be going to university and Y number of those who will be going to colleges, and plan its budgetary priorities accordingly;

•?A limited amount of money should be kept in reserve as a contingency fund for deserving cases that have not been budgeted for;

•?If the pupils make it through matric, a NSFAS transcript will be sent to the institution to which the individual has applied; and

•?The institution will be allocated money covering the total needs of the number of such students it is admitting. It will have to sign an undertaking that such students will receive academic support and constant performance management.

Students’ needs
In addition to the advantage this has for budgetary processes, it would also help institutions of higher learning to know the needs of its prospective students and prepare for that.

An obligation to perform will apply to recipients.

This is working well with accounting students on the Thuthuka Programme. It should work with NSFAS as well.

What about the immediate situation? What I have just said will not bring an end to the protests today or next year. Students need answers to their immediate needs so they can approach the forthcoming examinations with peaceful minds.

The department of higher education and training alleges that, of the R12-billion it requested, only R8-billion was made available. Now NSFAS says it needs more than R15-billion to cover everyone.

Would the private sector and the treasury not be able to share the shortfall that could make a huge difference to the stability of our institutions between now and the beginning of 2015?

There should surely be tax benefits for businesses that support such a good cause.

I suggest that the treasury and the private sector should be roped in to supplement the current budget. Provision should be made, however,  for the next two academic years while a sustainable solution to the NSFAS model is being worked out.

It should be possible to phase in a new model that involves schools and communities by 2017.

Professor McGlory Speckman is former dean of students at the University of Pretoria. He was recently seconded to the University of Zululand for two years as adviser to the vice-chancellor on student affairs and recently published a paper on student material support in a book he co-edited with Martin Mandew. He is a professor of the New Testament in the faculty of theology at the University of Pretoria

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