​Blade’s puzzle: How to identify ‘missing middle’ students

The government is planning to scrutinise the income tax and financial records of families earning up to R600 000 in a bid to determine the number of university students who qualify for a 0% fee hike next year.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, chief executive of Universities South Africa, confirmed that the department of higher education and training, together with a subcommittee comprising finance officers from universities, has been trying to identify criteria that could be used to find out which students qualify for the concession.

He said the assumption was that there were about 400 000 students who fell in the “missing middle” category.

“The big question is: How do we identify those students? The only thing we can do is to begin to use things like tax data and banking data. We would say that if you want to apply for the subsidy then you must allow us to use the banking and tax data to determine whether you fall into this category.”

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande announced an 8% cap on fee increases in September. He also said that students who qualify for funding from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), as well as those from households with an annual income of up to R600 000, will not be subjected to a fee increase in 2017 — the government would bear the cost of the fee increase for the very poor and missing-middle students.

Those students receiving financial aid through NSFAS will not be asked for their families’ tax and financial records because their annual income threshold for eligibility was R122 000.

Bawa said the department’s view was that matriculants from quintile one, two and three schools would also automatically fall under the R600 000 bracket. “This category of students will be very easy to identify.”

Students have been angered by next year’s fee increase announcements made this week by some universities.

The University of the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria announced an 8% fee hike. The University of Cape Town will decide on its increase for next year at its Saturday council meeting.

Fasiha Hassan, former secretary general of the Wits student representative council (SRC), said students were disappointed with the 8% fee hike.

“The SRC never agreed to an 8% increment. We raised it time and again that it was problematic but we were outvoted.”

Said Hassan: “It was very mischievous of Adam Habib [Wits’s vice-chancellor] and his council to make the pronouncement at a time like this, in December, when most students have gone home.”

She said the SRC was unrelenting in its demand for free, quality, decolonised higher education.

Asked about the prospect of student protests early next year in view of the fee hike, she said: “It would be unfair for us to expect anything different. I can understand why hundreds of thousands of students will next year tell me why they want to protest. What do I say to them? Don’t protest?”

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Prega Govender
Prega Govender is the Mail & Guardians education editor. He was a journalist at the Sunday Times for almost 20 years before joining the M&G in May 2016. He has written extensively on education issues pertaining to both the basic and higher education sectors.

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