’Missing middle’ students fall through financial aid cracks
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Although funding from the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has increased more than fivefold in six years, from R5.9 billion in 2014 to R34.7bn in 2020, the missing middle remains a critical challenge, sparking intense debate in South Africa.
The country’s “missing middle” students came under the spotlight at a webinar hosted by the University of Pretoria (UP) last week on its Future Africa Institute and Campus.
UP vice-chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe said government was currently not funding the “missing middle” and had even struggled to meet its obligations to NSFAS financed students.
According to Kupe, the solution may hurt the institutions currently benefiting because to increase the NSFAS budget, government essentially had to cut the budgets allocated to universities.
But he said it was vital to strike the proper balances as “you can’t also teach in a poor research environment as that affects the quality of what is taught”.
“That is not keeping up with the change,” he said.
The “missing middle” refers to those students who come from working-class households that do not qualify for funds from NSFAS while at the same time, they cannot afford higher education.
On 14 May, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande, told Parliament that the ministry was investigating new mechanisms, possibly backed by both public and private sectors, to support students in the so-called ‘missing middle’ income bracket and postgraduate funding.
Nzimande said this comes after thousands of rejected new NSFAS students submitted their appeals.
He said that this year, NSFAS received about 799 017 applications, with 67% of the new applicants being Sassa beneficiaries.
Nzimande said, meanwhile, that NSFAS funding is expected to breach the R43bn mark this year with the NSFAS approved budget for 2020/21 standing at R41.5bn, excluding the R6.4bn additional budget approved.
“Following the shortfall experienced by NSFAS, we reprioritised our departmental budget to ensure that all deserving NSFAS-qualifying students can receive funding for the 2021 academic year.
“Irrespective of these challenges, NSFAS funding has increased more than fivefold just in 6 years, from R5.9bn in 2014 to R34.7bn in 2020.
In the current financial year, NSFAS funding is expected to reach over R43bn – a further increase of nearly R10bn in just two years,” he said.
Kupe said Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) was established 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,” he warned.
According to Kupe, Covid-19 has worsened the situation in the country as the “missing middle” had increased since more 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 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.”
Kupe said more resources must be put into laboratories and learning systems.
“We are competing with Nigeria and Rwanda.
“We should be competing with Singapore as well, or we will be left behind,” he said.
On the missing middle, he said: “We need a hybrid system; it is not sustainable to have one source of funding.
“We need multiple sources.”
Chairman of the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme, Sizwe Nxasana, said in respect of funding of students within the country, citizens must understand that it could not be left alone to the government and public institutions to address.
Nxasana said the need for people to collaborate for collective solutions to assist young people was necessary for the current pandemic.
With the student debt in the university system increasing in the last few years to a worrying R16bn, he said organisations such as ISFAP and the NSFAS could simply not manage with the demand.
Nxasana said while the government had done much to increase its budget allocation to NSFAS to above R35bn a year, the student demand remained even greater.
The ISFAP foundation is a registered bursary provider that funds the higher education costs of “missing middle” students studying critical skills across universities in South Africa.
“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,” he said.
“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,” he added.
In October, Phumelelani Mshumi, president of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of the Western Cape, addressed delegates at the Universities South Africa (USAf) Higher Education Conference, told delegates that NSFAS should be the primary resource for students at universities.
He insisted that there should be no private intervention in the sector as a whole.
Universities, he said, must never be fully autonomous as it relates to funding, stating that “those who fund you control the pace and form of your development” and that universities are academic spaces that must not be turned into corporate businesses; therefore, there must be increased government spending.
Mshumi said the issue of funding was complex in a country with increasing public debt and a shrinking economy worsened by corruption.
“But, we must never run away from the question of neo-liberal policies that have put us where we are as a country.
“The neo-liberal policy approaches pursued by the ruling party have worsened the condition of the poor and working class,” he said.