To avoid similar standoffs in future, the country needs to explore creative solutions to fund tertiary education writes Mvelo Hlophe
Maybe we have been doing it all wrong. Maybe we have totally lost the plot and gone off in the wrong direction. Twenty-two years post-apartheid, people are still angry; they still feel that their basic needs are not being met and with the political climate looking ghastly in South Africa, there appears to be little hope that this situation will change soon.
The upshot has been nothing short of turmoil, with students receiving the short end of the stick. Uncertainty over fee increments has caused much so discord that things may get worse before they get better. Student tears are met with blind eyes; student cries are met with deaf ears. Who can cry foul when students stir up a Catch-22 situation, all summarised under a hashtag fighting to be heard?
The economic situation of our nation has for a long time been responsible for the delicate situation we are now dealing with. It has become increasingly difficult to fund all of the students who make it into university, causing frustration for many. We have bright young students with the potential to change the world who are financially excluded from universities due to lack of funding. We have students passing with eight A’s in matric, and not being able to attend university because of their financial situation at home. The severe inequality gap in South Africa caused by apartheid still affects many students today.
With the rand weakening and inflation rising, it is no wonder government appears to be failing its hardworking children by not providing them with much-needed tertiary education. But even with the numerous pressures placed on the national budget, can we really afford to compromise our future leaders of industries? The current allocation for student funding is lacking; that is no secret. We witnessed the shortcomings of this in 2015. #FeesMustFall was birthed out of student anger. Funding has simply not covered all the students who need it — particularly the notorious “missing middle” class.
The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) pays out millions of rands annually in student loans, but many cannot access it as they do not meet the financial needs criteria. As a result, thousands of students who do not tick the boxes of being “in financial need” or being “previously disadvantaged” are unable to reap the benefits of this fund. Again, the “missing middle” class is highlighted — too rich for financial aid, but too poor to afford university. Living in South Africa as a student faced with imminent financial exclusion, one tends to think of alternative ways to obtain funding. One tends to see faults in how funding is allocated to university students.
Has anyone every stopped to question the financing model of Nsfas? Why is it solely focused on university students? In fact, why is the scheme focused on university students at all? With so much money being spent annually on tertiary education by such an organisation, we need to stop and gauge its success rate, and perhaps consider spending it differently. Nsfas is also not the only player in the tertiary funding space. Corporates such as Alan Gray, Old Mutual and Sasol also have the capacity to change the way they fund their bursaries.
A new model, which guarantees greater success, is required. Imagine if the hundreds of scholarships and bursaries that fund tertiary education stopped funding only that, instead spending their money on schoolchildren, from primary school all the way to matric. One year’s tuition and residence fees at an institution like UCT can cover up to 10 students at an average fee high school for a year, or a single student all the way through high school twice over.
Another possibility is this: a learner’s parents are still required to pay their child’s school fees, but instead of this money going to the school, it is saved at a compounded interest rate, invested in stocks or bonds to accumulate over the period that the learner completes school, like an insurance or pension fund. After the child graduates, there will be more than enough money to cover the child’s own tertiary education, and perhaps another learner’s. The beauty of this is that children who attend schools like Michael House or Hilton College can essentially fund those students who go to free schools. This shared pool of grown wealth will make tertiary education free and accessible to all who apply and are accepted into university.
School of choice
An extension to this will be to allow parents to pay a percentage of the school fees that they are currently expected to pay at a school, say below 50%. With the same growth rate applied, sufficient money could still be generated if all parents whose children are at paying schools contribute. What this means is that children will now be able to go to schools formerly beyond their parents’ financial capacity; they will now be able to attend the schools of their choice. In addition, there will be lower dropout rates due to financial problems at high school, and the traditionally expensive private schools will have more children passing through them, while receiving the best possible education. All in all more children will finish high school and more will enter university and be able to complete their degrees.
To deal with any problem successfully, looking to fix it where it is happening never works, while targeting the root cause always ensures positive outcomes. #FeesMustFall is a necessary part of the history of South Africa. Free tertiary education is something that is achievable, but it requires that we break away from normal ways of addressing the problem. We have seen the students’ tears. We have heard the students’ cries. Now is the time to react to their plea and make the hashtag stand.
Hlophe is a 19-year-old studying for Bachelor of Business Science, Finance at the University of Cape Town. This article won him a Student Leadership Summit prize, an initiative of South African Institute of Chartered Accountants. It has been slightly edited.