Major partnerships required to fund growing ’missing middle’ students at universities
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Pretoria - Covering the R30 billion needed in order to fund the country's growing “missing middle” student group will require partnerships across many stakeholders in order to keep up with the demand and save South Africa's education system.
These were some of the suggestions and concerns that came out of the online dialogue, presented by the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) and the University of Pretoria (UP) on funding students within the “missing middle” income bracket.
The ISFAP foundation is a registered bursary provider that funds the higher education costs of “missing middle” students studying towards critical skills across universities in South Africa.
Sizwe Nxasana, Chairman of ISFAP, said in looking at funding students within the country citizens needed to understand that everyone could no longer leave the issue to the government and public institutions to address alone.
Nxasana said the need for people to hold hands and look to a collective solution on assisting young people was even more important in the face of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
With the student debt in the university system increasing in the last few years to a worrying R16 billion, he said organisations such as ISFAP and the National Student Financial Scheme (NSFAS) could simply not keep up with the demand.
He added that even though the government had done a lot of work to increase the allocation of their budget to NSFAS to above R35 billion a year, the student demand remained even greater.
"As a country, we have to find ways to sustain the higher education system without essentially taking funds away from research, block grants, and earmarked grants which are important for the universities and the students they serve."
"We need a lot more people to come to the party and we have to accept that we can't just provide grants to students. Industries such as the financial services sector and others need to work together to find other innovative ways of how we can improve the quality of our higher education system which at the moment is at risk."
Nxasana said hints of the country spiralling down could be evidenced by the fact that funds were taken from other critical programmes including the national skills fund, something he believed was a "zero-sum" game.
"We need to find new sources of funding so that we do not degrade our education system particularly the university system which is still very highly regarded worldwide."
University of Pretoria's Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Tawana Kupe, said as it stood the government was not funding the “missing middle” and had even struggled in keeping their commitments to NSFAS funded students.
He said in order to increase the NSFAS budget the government essentially had to cut the budgets allocated to universities, the bulk of funds which were often allocated to the university's research programmes.
"It is important to strike the right balances as you can't also teach in a research poor environment as that affects the quality of what is taught. That is not keeping up with the change."
"ISFAP was created to bridge the “missing middle” but it cannot cover that gap alone for the country. Equally important is that if the economy does not grow and there is no employment we will be sitting with an even bigger problem."
Kupe said Covid-19 had in fact worsened the situation in the country as the “missing middle” had increased as some people were now unemployed and unable to pay their fees where previously they could make a plan or loan to get by.
"We're getting into a very big crisis that requires we think out of the box with partnerships across many stakeholders and fundamentally ensure that we have an economy that is growing and serves the population."