​Increasing student aid includes rethinking curriculums

COMMENT
While most of us were enjoying a break from a challenging year, a significant Government Gazette was issued calling for public comment on the ministerial task team’s proposal for a support and funding model for the poor and the missing middle.

The December 22 2016 issue of the Mail & Guardian carried an article titled “Student aid may have a new future”, highlighting some key features of the proposal.

The gazette proposes a “blueprint” for funding the full costs of study for the very poor, the poor and the missing middle — essentially, funding students whose household income falls below R600 000. We are told that 65% of students currently enrolled in public higher education fit this profile.

The proposed funding scheme, called the Ikusasa Financial Student Aid Scheme (ISFAP), aims to provide access to very poor, poor and missing-middle students who are academically eligible for university study. The proposed model would ensure that the very poor receive free education through grants and bursaries; the poor and the missing middle would receive a mix of bursaries, grants and loans depending on household income.

The proposed blueprint for achieving this goal would cost about R42-billion a year. The key feature of the new funding model is a public-private partnership between the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and a private management company that will administer the funds received from private investors.

The challenge is to ensure that the funding provided by the state (taxpayers), private investors, parents and students results in a qualification that enables graduates to participate meaningfully in society. Bringing the private sector on board, which requires a return on its investment, sharpens the focus on completing the qualification.

But the state and higher education institutions have not sufficiently prioritised this. For example, the current state funding formula incentivises input over output, that is, enrolling students generates more funding than graduating them. Thus the spotlight on completion rates is welcome.

But there are some concerns. The ministerial task team’s terms of reference require it to “develop proposals which contribute towards the improvement of the success and graduation rates for poor and missing-middle students”. Given NSFAS’s extremely poor record in supporting students to completion, this is critical to the credibility of the new scheme.

But the proposed model underestimates what it takes to improve success rates. The gazette suggests that funding, whether through grant or loan, will be available for a “regulated time” — N or N+1 (N equals three years).

The latest department of higher education and training cohort studies show that, for those students enrolling for a three-year diploma in 2008, after three years 38% had dropped out and only 14% had graduated (25% by N+1). For the three-year degree, 26% had dropped out and 20% had graduated (36% by N+1). The degree completion rate for African students is 13% (N) and 28% (N+1). These poor completion rates point to systemic challenges that the ISFAP needs to acknowledge.

The gazette’s reference to “wraparound” support suggest naive assumptions about the challenges students face in successfully completing their studies. This regards support as an “add on”, such as extra tutorials and workshops on life skills, academic literacy and psychosocial support. If a student placed in a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) programme arrives at university inadequately prepared for university-level mathematics, no amount of “wraparound” support will enable them to succeed.

What is essential is an appropriate curriculum that specifically caters for foundational conceptual gaps.

The success of the ISFAP depends on a “twin” investment strategy on the part of the state to remove both financial and academic obstacles that prevent the best products of our public and private schooling from successfully graduating.

The focus of this systemic intervention needs to be on developing an undergraduate curriculum that is appropriate, both in structure and content, for South Africa.

For example, given that the majority of our matriculants are not sufficiently prepared for university- level mathematics, the National Development Plan 2011 said STEM-related degrees should be extended by a year. This proposal was further developed by the Council of Higher Education 2013 proposal for a flexible degree.

Unless these systemic obstacles are addressed, the NSFAS track record of wastage will simply be exacerbated and we will yet again fall short of the 1997 white paper policy goals of equity of access and outcomes.

Suellen Shay is an associate professor and dean of the Centre for Higher Education Development at the University of Cape Town

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