Middle-class students are losing out at university over funding

Scores of deserving teens from middle-class families are being shut out of universities because the system caters more for their poorer and wealthier counterparts.

The situation has been brought to light by the recently appointed vicechancellor of Rhodes University, Dr Sizwe Mabizela, who has described the state of affairs as “heart-breaking”.

Mabizela has also highlighted the fact that cashstrapped middle-class parents have to resort to applying for bank loans to fund their children’s tertiary studies.

Amajor bank’s spokeswoman confirmed that the multi-billion rand student loan market had experienced an upsurge in activity in recent years.

Mabizela, meanwhile, has made an impassioned “clarion call” to the private sector and society to help plug the finance gap that is seeing more and more middle-class children falling victim to the education funding crunch.

And the vice-chancellor has already put his money where his mouth is.

He said: “In my previous role as deputy vice-chancellor [at Rhodes], I made a salary sacrifice, which went towards establishing a fund that assists academically talented but financially needy students.

“Too often, we have come across students who are in their second year and beyond, who have performed well, but cannot remain at university because their parents cannot afford the fees.

“Hence, this call to the private sector and broader society to help with the situation.

“University cannot be the exclusive preserve of the rich. What message is this sending to our young people: that because of factors beyond their control, they cannot study?”

The middle-class finds itself in a financial catch 22. They do not have deep enough pockets to pay their own fees, but they are not poor enough to qualify for state funding.

This is a worrying trend that needs to be rectified if the country is to realise the fair, just, equitable and humane society envisioned in its constitution, Mabizela told Weekend Post.

Children of civil servants like teachers, police officers and nurses, whose parents fall just outside the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding threshold, are the worst affected.

One of the ways in which the plight of middle-class students could be eased was for NSFAS to get its house in order and strengthen its collections, Mabizela said.

Another potential study stumbling block, he said, was NSFAS capping funding for poorer students, who were the scheme’s intended beneficiaries.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University vicechancellor Professor Derrick Swartz agreed with Mabizela that the middle-class were being shut out of higher education because of economics.

“[Higher Education Minister] Dr Blade Nzimande is well aware of this problem and, in fact, commissioned a study in 2013 to look at ways of funding this category.

“However, the problem since then has been [securing] Treasury funding to the department to finance this category, a prospect looking increasingly bleaker in the current constrained public funding environment,” Swartz said.

Statistics on the number of students rejected based on finances were not immediately available.

The student loan market is worth R5-billion and accounts for 3% of the unsecured lending credit industry, according to Absa spokeswoman Zintle Letlaka, who said there had been a significant increase in applications in recent years because the cost of tertiary education had gone up.

The Eastern Cape accounted for 7% of student loan applications, FNB spokeswoman Chloe Hackland said.

Last year FNB saw an 8% increase in student loan applications compared with 2013.

Individuals earning between R6 000 and R12 000 accounted for 21% of student loan applications; those in the R12 000 to R20 000 income bracket made up 27% of applications, while people earning more than R20 000 made up 52% of FNB’s student loan applications, she said.

-Xolisa Phillip 

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