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Higher education funding insufficient, deserving students excluded - SAHRC chair

29 June 2021

The chairperson of the SA Human Rights Commission (SAHRC), Professor Bongani Majola, says there is a need for significant amendments in higher education funding models.

Majola says such amendments will ensure that students from poor backgrounds, and those in the so-called "missing middle" category, are not unduly disadvantaged.

Majola was on Tuesday speaking during a webinar hosted by the Office of the Public Protector, in collaboration with the SAHRC, under the theme: Protecting the right to higher education.

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane and her deputy, Kholeka Gcaleka, attended the discussion, along with other higher education and training stakeholders.

Among the panelists at the webinar were the Department of Higher Education and Training's deputy director-general of university education, Thandi Lewin, the CEO of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Andile Nongogo, South African Union of Students secretary-general, Lukhanyo Daweti, and the head of operations and sector support at Universities South Africa, Linda Meyer.

Majola said statistics had shown that higher education funding was insufficient and that deserving students, without other financial means, continued to be excluded from the system.

Meanwhile, those who could pay for their tuition had to do so under tremendous pressure on themselves and their families.

"The commission continues to engage NSFAS on the numerous challenges that exist and which impact on the realisation of the right to further education.

"It is the hope of the commission that funding models can be amended accordingly to ensure that students are not unduly disadvantaged, including those who form part of the missing middle," Majola said.

He said Statistics SA had indicated that great progress had been made in the education sector, but there remained shortcomings.

He stressed that students, who could not afford their tuition, required significant intervention from the government for their right to education to be realised.

Lewin said, despite growth in government funding over the years, the sector was still not adequately addressing all the existing challenges it faced.

Funding for postgraduate students and student debt were among the lingering challenges.

Lewin said the department was doing further debt analysis as part of the policy review it was undertaking.

Need for a comprehensive funding scheme

She added that there was an exponential increase in higher education training funding from R6 billion to NSFAS in 2014/15 to R35 billion in the 2019/20 financial year.

"This year's (2021/22) allocation has grown to R41.5 billion. And that includes the additional funds that have been reprioritised from inside the department, university and TVET funds, as well as from the national skills fund, in order to support the shortfall at NSFAS."

While the department had increased funding to support some students, Lewin said it had not addressed the need for a comprehensive student financial aid system.

Lewin said:
What we need to do is to try and find some kind of a universal or comprehensive funding scheme going forward, so that we are able to address all of these issues, which include addressing student debt, funding for the missing middle students, who are essentially holding much of that debt, and also, of course, addressing the funding needs of the system.

She said the sector was also faced with a delicate situation, in which it needed to balance the government's high-level policies to grow and expand the system while also providing transformational support through the student funding policy.

"The debt profile of students is something we are trying to understand much better now as part of this policy review that is underway," she said.

She stressed that the department continued working in consultation with National Treasury and NSFAS to outline support for students from poor and working class backgrounds.

Daweti confirmed the union was faced with the challenge of students falling in the missing middle.

"We have started a conversation with the CEO of NSFAS to say how can we tamper with this category because, the reality of the matter, it's a real concern, and there is a large number of students who are there," Daweti said.

Source: News24

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