Student Financial Aid Crisis

“Those who are rich are going to class while those who are poor don’t know whether they have a future”

I think that we need a serious conversation in our society about how we finance higher education in this country… I think it’s really tragic that political parties will take what is essentially a high need and try to score cheap political points out of it. This does not allow for a deliberated conversation in the society. It doesn’t allow us to have a serious conversation without any of the emotions attached.

Professor Adam Habib
- Wits University Vice-Chancellor

Many parents are unable to meet the high costs of education from their household budgets. So support from schemes such as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) provides a lifeline to families across the nation. But there has been much turmoil around the implementation of the scheme.

The University of the Free State’s tuition fees are 23 to 38% lower than that of other tertiary institutions, according to research done by Moneyweb.

Pan African Student Movement of Azania (PASMA) leaders call for continued protests as almost 1 000 students look on. Photo: Nombulelo Damba West Cape News

Pan African Student Movement of Azania (PASMA) leaders call for continued protests as almost 1 000 students look on. Photo: Nombulelo Damba West Cape News

A Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree costs roughly R18 780, while a Bachelor of Science (BSc) costs about R23 690. This may not seem exorbitant but it is still not affordable to many students. This is why financial aid schemes such as the government-funded National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) are so important.

NSFAS has been the source of turmoil in many institutions of higher learning across the country, even though funds allocated to universities have increased from R2.5-billion in 2008 to R9.5-billion in 2014.

Speaking at a press conference recently, the University of Witswatersrand’s Student Representative Council (SRC) President, Mcebo Dlamini, expressed frustration at the manner in which the NSFAS issue was being handled.

“We are caught in the middle between NSFAS and the university. The university is saying it’s NSFAS. NSFAS is saying it’s the university, and we are in the middle. Those who are rich are going to class while those who are poor don’t know whether they have a future at this prestigious university…”

The latest protests have been triggered by the decision to charge students awaiting NSFAS approval a registration fee of R4 670.

Frustrated students across the country have taken to protesting, with chaos erupting at institutions like the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) where classes have been suspended. At the Cape Peninsula University of Technology students used pepper spray to keep others out of class.

Dlamini said the obstacles related to NSFAS were repeated each year and led to conflict.

Despite the frustration, the Wits SRC under Dlamini launched a successful campaign a few weeks ago to raise R1-million to help fellow students so that they can register. The effort, widely praised, has assisted about 2 000 students.

But the NSFAS issue remains.

Ntakuseni Razwiedani, a UFS post-graduate student, suggested the answer was free education. He said the money could be raised from large corporations and a tax imposed on high income earners. He said the NSFAS budget was insufficient to cover all needy students.

According to Razwiedani, the issue of education needed political will.

“Of course government is trying but it’s not doing its best in terms of what it can do, because I mean if we’re speaking of the education tax for example, it’s something that must be introduced by government. So if that’s an option for government to do away with fees in institutions of higher education and learning and it’s not doing it, it means within the ANC led government there is a lack of political will to deliver free education.”

Adam Habib

Adam Habib

Professor Adam Habib, the Vice-Chancellor of Wits University, also alluded to the interference of political parties in the issue of NSFAS. Speaking at a press conference recently he said:

“I think that we need a serious conversation in our society about how we finance higher education in this country… I think it’s really tragic that political parties will take what is essentially a high need and try to score cheap political points out of it. This does not allow for a deliberated conversation in the society. It doesn’t allow us to have a serious conversation without any of the emotions attached.”

UFS academic Dr Kelebogile Choice Makhetha, the Vice-Rector for External Relations at the University of the Free State weighed in on the issue. She said the government could budget for education as if it were a priority, but the manner in which these funds were spent undermined the priority status. She mentioned a meeting that was attended by the minister of Higher Education, representatives from institutions of higher learning across the country and the NSFAS CEO where solutions could not be tabled.

“Even there at the meeting with the minister there were no solutions – even about the students who qualified for NSFAS who were in the system and were not funded last year to say now what do we do this year. All universities together with the minister and the CEO of NSFAS could not come with a solution. So each university is coming up with ways to save its students because they’re already in their second year, third year and are about to finish.”
Dr Makhetha said the business sector had to be involved more to raise funds for financial aid for students. “I think we have not explored bringing the business sector into play, because a lot of companies would ask ‘how can we assist?’ and even with bursaries because most of them have not been approached and there’s more that we can do… If most of the companies listed on the JSE were funding education the challenge would be lighter.”

When asked about the feasibility of an education tax which would allow for free higher education, Dr Makhetha responded by saying:

“It’s easy to talk about tax. Already businesses are being taxed heavily and you take load shedding now as one piece that is affecting the economy, that businesses will not be making as much money as they have been making because of load shedding. And we’re talking three years ahead of us. It’s more like an eco-system. If you touch this, it affects that.”

She said overall our society needed to put more value on education. How a society spent its money was an indication of what it valued.

“If you check a society and how we spend, on what we spend our money on, at times it’s those things we can do without and actually contribute. People go to clubs and restaurants and spend R4 000, R5 000 a night. If a person was to put such money into a fund that goes towards education it would make a difference. But I think we have not gotten to a point where we are conscious about the challenge that is there for education.”

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