Supporting the 'missing middle' in higher education

Gwebs Qonde on the DHET's new Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme

Government moves towards a sustainable solution to the higher education fees challenge

Government has largely succeeded in opening up access to increasing numbers of students to university education, and technical and vocational education and training (TVET). However, it remains an unfortunate reality that our country’s higher education and training institutions, especially universities, are unaffordable for many students from disadvantaged backgrounds and middle income families suffering from high debt burdens.

The high levels of competition for bursaries and scholarships means that not all students, no matter how academically deserving, can be fully supported via this funding method. Student loans from financial institutions, while an option for some, are also inaccessible to many as their family incomes do not meet the affordability criteria of lenders, and where they do, students and their families are saddled with huge debt burdens before they even enter the job market.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has done much to deal with the problem for poor students, but the main challenge is that students at the more expensive institutions and in many professional programmes, cannot be funded fully. Middle income families have so far been left out of this scheme.

The result of all this is that too many young South Africans remain unable to access the opportunity to obtain a tertiary education and professional qualification. This is recognised as a national challenge that we have seen culminate in the #FeesMustFall protests and debates about the cost and funding of higher education over the past couple of years.

Substantial work has been done by the Department of Higher Education and Training since the Review of NSFAS in 2010, and the release of the working group report on free university education for the poor in 2013. To further develop some of this work, a Ministerial Task Team was set up in 2016 to fast track the development of an efficient and sustainable model to address the funding challenge of SA’s students in universities and TVET colleges. It is this work that has culminated in the proposal for the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP). 

ISFAP is designed to help students from poor and middle income families – commonly referred to as the ‘missing middle’ – to gain access to universities and TVET colleges, and to succeed through providing full financial and other forms of support. It will provide upfront financial support through bursaries and loans for a greater number of students than is currently the case, and will do this through a combination of government and private sector funding. It is intended as a long-term initiative that can address the need for accessible and affordable student funding in a sustainable way.

The scheme will ultimately support students in any qualification, including general formative qualifications as well as those designed to produce professionals, technicians and other skills for the labour market.

It is recognised that many students are not provided with quality career advice and development support to make informed choices that match their interests, abilities and future prospects. The Department’s career development services are designed to provide support and advice so that good choices can be made on what to study and where to study.

The Department is also simultaneously investing in universities to develop their systems to track students through data analytics and provide advisory, and other support services to increase students’ chances of success – with the new ISFAP scheme designed to be integrated into these systems so that any student supported through this funding scheme is fully supported to make informed study and career choices.    

ISFAP will, through providing full funding for students, also contribute to improving the employment prospects of graduates, while simultaneously creating a highly qualified and sustainable pipeline for these professions that our country so desperately needs. The funding programme is also an example of what happens when the public and private sectors come together to craft and implement constructive national solutions. While we often speak of public, private partnerships (PPPs), very rarely do the public get to experience and benefit from these in the way that they will with ISFAP beginning in 2017 with the official launch of the pilot programme.

Throughout the Ministerial Task Team process, one question came up consistently: what model is ISFAP based on, and what makes it so different?

ISFAP is a hybrid-funding model structured in the form of a mix of grants, loans and effective family contributions. Based on a unique means test matrix, students who come from very poor backgrounds and are supported by the programme will receive fully-subsidised funding, while students from middle income families will receive funding that is split between loan, grant and family contribution, with a greater portion of their studies falling in the grant portion during their first and second year of study.

It is also underpinned by the provision of holistic support to funded students in order to ensure their success. The Department has long recognised that that it takes more than just financial support to ensure that students are successful in their studies.

Factors such as school quality, especially in poor and rural communities; high student-to-staff ratios at undergraduate level, and especially in first-year; insufficient student support for academic and social adjustment to university life; and inadequate systems for identifying those who need such support can all hamper a student’s ability to succeed at tertiary level. The Ministerial Task Team has therefore proposed ways in which such support can be integrated into the ISFAP funding model.

In 2017, the ISFAP model will be piloted at six universities and one TVET college. The pilot will fund the studies of around 2 000 students studying in a number of general formative degrees as well as seven professional qualifications and one artisan qualification for the duration of their studies.

The selected scarce-skills courses are medical doctors, pharmacists, actuaries, engineers, chartered accountants, prosthetists and artisans (welders, plumbers and electricians). The general formative programmes will be in the humanities and social sciences, as well as general sciences. The goal of the pilot is to test aspects of the model and refine it.

At the same time, a full feasibility study on the model is under way, with the aim being to implement and rollout the full programme as soon as the full model is developed and approved, and the various legal and administrative issues are in place.

The lessons learnt during the 2017 pilot, the comments received from the public consultation process, the results of a feasibility study that will be conducted by National Treasury running parallel to the pilot, and the recommendations of the Presidential Commission of Inquiry into Higher Education and Training, will feed into the development of the final model. The duration of the pilot will depend on these processes, and whatever the outcome of these processes, all students supported on the pilot will be assisted for the duration of their studies.

Can government and its partners guarantee the success of ISFAP, especially with regards to the current fees challenge? While this remains to be seen, we believe we have to give the programme a real chance if we are to give the majority of our university and TVET students an opportunity to truly succeed.

However, it is critical to the success of the programme that all stakeholders in this key national effort pull together. While government and its private sector partners can lead the charge, there is a need for all South Africans to support this innovative approach to sustainable solutions regarding the fees challenge. It is the only way we can begin to effect the constitutional promise of higher education and TVET that is available and accessible for all those who merit it, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Indeed, no student who is academically deserving should be denied access to post-school education and training based on financial need. In ISFAP, we may finally have a sustainable solution to providing an affordable funding solution for university and TVET education.

Gwebs Qonde is Director General of the Department of Higher Education and Training.