The access to higher education webinar in a post-covid South Africa discussed the future of higher education and interventions into funding policy.  

On Tuesday, August 31 the South African Student Solidarity Foundation for Education (SASSFE) hosted a webinar on access to education, with the central issue the ‘missing middle’ when it comes to the funding of higher education. 

The “missing middle” describes the cohort of students who come from working class households with a combined annual household income of R350 000 that fail to meet the National Students Funding Aid Scheme (NSFAS) criteria. If a student’s combined household income surpasses this by as little as R1, the student does not qualify for funding. 

The issue was recently highlighted during the national shutdown and fee protests in early 2021. Students protested after being denied registration for the academic year due to historical debt.   

Panellist and board chairman of NSFAS, Ernest Khosa, explained that addressing the issue of funding for the “missing middle” is a top priority for the new board of the entity. A new board was announced eight months ago, after pressure from stakeholders, for the previous board to resign. 

“The first challenge we have with our funding policies is the funding criteria itself. It affects parents who are just above the set criteria and in some of our consultations with stakeholders, they feel left out of many of the state’s services and facilities,” said Khosa. 

Dr Diane Parker, special projects advisor in the Vice-Chancellor’s office at the University of Pretoria, called for the private sector to get involved in the policy of funding higher education. The biggest concern for the private sector is being repaid for what it invests in any funding scheme.  

“Higher education is both a public and a private good. I think it’s something that should be invested in as the return of investment has been huge,” said Parker. 

According to Parker, in 2014, 62% of NSFAS funded students graduated within five years of starting their degrees. In comparison, unfunded students had a percentage of 45%. 

Other panellists included Vice-Dean of strategic projects at the University of the Free State, Professor Phillipe Burger and Wandi Khumalo, SRC president at the Technical University of Tshwane. 

FEATURED IMAGE: Financial aid and scholarship office sign in Solomon Mahlangu House. Photo: Zanolwazi Kunene