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By Ntokozo Mfusi
Fee increases and the lack of student funding at tertiary institutions are placing severe strain on disadvantaged students and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.
This point was raised by education minister Naledi Pandor last week, at the opening of the new biological and conservation sciences building at the University of KwaZulu-Natal's Westville campus.
"There is a tension between the legitimate belief that charging higher fees is a reasonable way of raising university income and the certain knowledge that charging fees will deter qualified students from disadvantaged backgrounds from going to university," she said.
A recent spate of student protests at various higher education institutions in the country in 2008 and at the beginning of past years was proof that poor students felt an enormous strain in keeping up with the increasing costs of tertiary education.
Psychologist Devi Rajab wrote in The Mercury recently that fee increases and the failure by disadvantaged families to afford education were affecting the need to tackle skills shortages in the country.
She said tertiary education was becoming more unaffordable for the majority of people who had growing aspirations. South Africa required a large financial injection into higher education funding if the country was to deal with the growing skills shortage.
Pandor said that government funding accounted for 49 percent of the total income of universities and student fees for only 24 percent in 2000. By 2005, the share of funding had fallen to 41 percent and the contribution from student fees had risen to 29 percent. The effect was that fee costs per student had risen at rates well above inflation.
Pandor said a balance had to be achieved, and the government was trying to address perennial funding problems by investing in higher education and giving greater government support through subsidies.
"In 2007, the total subsidy was R1,3-billion. In 2008 it is R15,1-billion and in 2010 it will be R19,2-billion. Increasing funds for higher education will allow most university managements to balance costs so that tuition fee levels are not set out of the reach of the majority of students or parents."
She said that while it was important to acknowledge the private sector's contribution to student funding, especially through scholarships and commercial bank loans, there was scope to examine the extension of bank loans to students who fell outside the reach of the student financial aid scheme.