Universities are facing the double whammy of desperately under-prepared school leavers and inadequate government funding for the large numbers of poor students they admit.
A series of crises facing tertiary education came to light this week as leaders in higher education called for more government funding to fund needy students. Some vice-chancellors even want to cap the numbers of students they admit, to improve appalling graduation rates.
Meanwhile, change is on the cards. A ministerial review committee, set up by higher education minister Blade Nzimande, is investigating a new model to improve student funding.
It is also investigating whether to expand the categories of students admitted to universities, to include people with work experience and no matric, and those with no matric exemption - measures that could pose an additional challenge to universities.
Previous research has shown that only 12 percent of black and coloured students gain entrance to higher education and only 5 percent graduate. The reasons for this were fleshed out this week, when it emerged that most of the students who drop out of university do so for financial reasons.
Many cannot find the money to top up the inadequate amount universities allocate them from the government loan system. Others do not qualify for a loan, because their parents earn more than R120 000 a year - the cut-off for qualifying as needy - and enter university hoping they will find the extra funds, but seldom do.
Ahmed Essop, acting chief executive of the government-funded National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), said a “back of an envelope” calculation nine years ago estimated that R1.5 billion a year in government funding was being wasted due to students dropping out. The current figure is likely to be several times greater.
“It’s an enormous burden for the fiscus,” he said. “And this is not just a financial loss. When someone goes to university they, and their family, have expectations. If they drop out, it’s an enormous blow to their self-esteem.”
The scheme allocates funds to each university according to a formula that takes into account the university’s number of needy students.
The university allocates these grants as it sees fit.
However, there are too few loans to cover the large numbers of poor students entering universities, so many institutions spread the money by splitting the loans up, often by about 50 percent. If they did not do this, there would be student riots over exclusions, leaders in tertiary education have warned.
Student dissatisfaction was again evident this week, when protests erupted at the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT).
On Thursday night, the TUT reached an agreement with protesting students, conceding that the fees of students receiving NSFAS loans would be covered in full.
Previously, the loans covered only 85 percent of the amount needed. In another sign of student anger over funds, violent protests flared at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology over soaring registration fees. Several students were suspended after the campus was damaged.
Researchers investigating the challenges students encounter have found they face huge financial problems and cannot make up the amount their loans do not cover. They struggle to pay for books, accommodation and even food, and some go hungry.
“Splitting up the loans assumes that students have access to other resources,” Essop said. “There will be a minority that does: their family scrapes some money together, or the student gets another bursary to cover the shortfall. But the large majority would not be able to do this, so they drop out on financial grounds.
“In an ideal world, everyone who qualifies should be given the full amount. But there isn’t enough to meet all the need.”
Students are dropping out during their first, second and third years. “If they drop out in the third year it’s obviously more of a waste. But I suspect that in these cases, universities would help the students, as they are so close to graduation,” Essop said.
“The issue here is not when students drop out, but that they should be able to finish their degrees. The university has taken them in and they are seen as suitable for higher education.”
Some universities, including UCT and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, are topping up student loans from their own budget, but not all can afford to do this.
The national treasury has prioritised higher education and increased its funding to NSFAS annually, from about R250 million 12 years ago, to about R1.27 billion in the 2009/10 financial year.
“We obviously welcome that the amount is going up all the time, but it is never enough,” said Essop. “My view is that whatever model we use, we need more money for NSFAS.”
University vice-chancellors, too, are calling for the government to increase its grants to the aid scheme. They are also grappling with dwindling government funding for their institutions’ running costs
Dr Theuns Eloff, chairman of Higher Education South Africa, which represents 23 universities, gave a presentation on student funding to the National Assembly’s committee on higher education this week. He told MPs universities were being forced to increase tuition and other fees because government grants for running costs had dropped in real terms over the past nine years, from 49 percent to 40 percent. These increases had put university education “out of reach for academically deserving, but poor students”.
Eloff, like Essop, argued for more funds for needy students through NSFAS.
It is not only the poorest students who cannot afford university fees. Because family income must be less than R120 000 to qualify for an NSFAS loan, the children of teachers, civil servants and other middle-class parents are also excluded.
“If a student goes to residence, the total cost could be R60 000 a year. A family with R200 000 can’t spend so much on one child,” said Essop.
Nzimande has acknowledged that many middle-class families are “falling through the gap”, and this is one of the many issues the review committee is investigating.
Bavelile Hlongwa, an SRC member at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, confirmed this was “a very common problem”.
“When you’ve got only the registration fee, you pay just that amount and then study for the year,” she said. “The next year, you are excluded because you owe the university money.”
Eloff told MPs the threshold for a grant should be raised by about 30 to 40 percent to include many middle-class students, but acknowledged that this would have to be phased in, as NSFAS did not have enough money to make a sudden change.
Funding students may be a huge challenge, but helping them cope academically is another. The results of new national tests show that the school system is not giving pupils the grounding in language and mathematics they need at university.
The final pilot phase of the National Benchmarking Tests Project, which tested 13 000 first-year students across the country in February, showed that only seven percent had the competence to study mathematics at university.
About a quarter of the students were numerically competent and about 47 percent of students who wrote the tests on academic literacy were proficient in English.
Most first-year university students need extensive support to have a chance of earning a degree, the researchers said.
The challenges universities faced, especially regarding mathematics, were “enormous”, said principal investigator Nan Yeld of the University of Cape Town.
Universities should adapt their mathematics to help the struggling students, she said.
They also needed to “provide extensive support in language development - not just for a small minority of registered students, but for almost half of them”. This is an expensive exercise, requiring extra staff and other university resources.
Many of the students who were battling would also require an extra year at university, chewing up a greater portion of NSFAS funds than was bargained for.
Yet these measures are necessary, academics say, both for the students’ own sake and to address the country’s crippling skills shortage.
Another recent report by a panel of educationists, led by University of the Free State vice-chancellor Jonathan Jansen, similarly concluded that the country’s schooling system was “dysfunctional”.
There is hope on the horizon. Nzimande’s higher education review committee is investigating a better model for funding NSFAS, as well as whether additional categories of students might be admitted to universities. These include both school-leavers without a university exemption, and adults with work experience who did not finish high school.
The committee is considering whether university entrance exams might be set up to determine the ability of these people.
Tertiary education could be at a watershed and many more young South Africans might in future gain a qualification - if the funding can be found.
admin @ August 17, 2009