Pedro Mzileni | NSFAS only recycles inequality


I was surprised when the World Bank published a study last week depicting its socio economic examination of our National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Their eyes clearly stretch beyond what I thought.
They claim, firstly, that the NSFAS model will decrease inequality from the current gini coefficient of 0.66 to 0.59 in 2030. Secondly, they say university graduates have a better chance of finding employment and would be in a better position to repay NSFAS debts.
Thirdly, the conversion of NSFAS loans into grants for students who come from families earning below R350,000 would give them a head start in life.
The observation by the World Bank fits into the classic neoliberal paradigm wherein there must be piecemeal changes on inequality as far as wealth ownership is concerned and the material purpose of receiving education is for one to become a precarious member of the consumer class.
There are three issues that the World Bank failed to comprehend which are a chronic problem with NSFAS and the structural limitations which negatively affect the progressive possibilities of the higher education sector.
Firstly, NSFAS is just an invoice for universities to make income. NSFAS does not affect nor play any role in student retention and student success.
In addition, it does not determine nor regulate the academic and accommodation fees that universities charge their students.
NSFAS does not have any interaction with universities beyond the payment of fees. This is why we must restructure the NSFAS business model to allow it to play a better role in higher education, to be more influential on issues of student retention and success.
For instance, when Rhodes University decides to charge, on average, R50,000 a year for its BCom accounting degree in 2020, NSFAS’s duty is to co-operate with how it has decided to value its qualifications.
With fees set to increase annually to meet inflation targets and other related market factors, NSFAS must continuously adhere to that financial system.
The 26 universities in the country have the liberty to set their own fees outside government regulation. Their politics of value determination are deeply entrenched in the logic of branding, imaging, ratings, graduation numbers, research outputs, subsidies, third-stream donor funding and location.
The same way Manchester United and Arsenal have their eyes glued on who is first on the league table to win a trophy, the vice-chancellors have their eyes on the market to see which one has a favourable economics of scale.
These conservative dynamics recycle inequalities between universities where the traditional white universities produce graduates who have a better chance of finding financial health than their counterparts in the rural universities.
Secondly, South Africa has the highest rate of inequality in terms of income and wealth ownership. A study done by FNB in 2018 showed that the black race earns so little ,such that it is unable to carry its monthly income beyond a period of seven days. They live the remaining 21 days of the month through debt.
We cannot debate it further as to how the system of apartheid colonialism caused this problem and the conservative economic policies of post apartheid SA have entrenched these disparities further.
This is the reality that the World Bank fails to understand about the unique economic climate of this country. A person’s success in our country is still strongly determined by their race and proximity to economic assets. One can be educated and still remain in poverty.
Lastly, this whole scenario shows that education in SA is still not free. Universities still have the liberty to set their own fees and increase them at will. The financial model of universities is still moulded around making the student finance its entire operation.
The state in SA is still unable to financially standardise universities and make them equally liable for quality scholarship. Instead, it is tailing behind them with an invoice called NSFAS to meet their unsustainable levels of financial demand.
The curriculum content that universities provide is still embedded in colonial canons.
If anything, the #FeesMustFall protests have not de-commodified higher education and Africanised the curriculum, but rather they have facilitated a class project wherein a select few black and coloured professionals with PhDs have ascended into higher posts under the disguise of “transformation”.
While it remains difficult for a black student who comes from the public education system to complete a three-year degree in three years, while the university fees are unregulated, while the youth unemployment rate is above 50% and with 74% of economic assets in the hands of the 5% of the population, the World Bank cannot afford to claim that NSFAS will resolve our structural challenges of inequality.
If anything, in real economic and social terms, the current model of NSFAS will simply maintain, recycle and vigorously deepen inequality.
Pedro Mzileni is a PhD sociology candidate at NMU..

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