Chancellors urged to assist in finding solutions to fund “missing middle”

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, has appealed to university chancellors to join hands with government in finding solutions to funding for the “missing middle”.

“Although the debt profile of students is something that needs to be better understood, it is presumed that much of the debt is carried by missing middle students, both current and past students,” Nzimande said.

Nzimande made the call at the launch of the Chancellors’ Forum of all 26 public universities in South Africa.

Addressing the hybrid Chancellors’ Forum launch and roundtable discussion comprising Chancellors, Vice Chancellors, Chairs of Council and Student Representative Council (SRC) Presidents of South African universities, Nzimande said although the office of the chancellor has no executive powers, given the context of the higher education system, the chancellor’s role is “more than just being a titular head”.

“The chancellor participates in outreach and philanthropic initiatives. The chancellor acts as an ambassador for the university, advocating to raise its profile, and advancing its interests nationally and internationally,” the Minister said.

The “missing middle” comprises students who do not meet the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) financial eligibility criteria, but still struggle to afford higher education.

Nzimande said there are different estimates of the numbers of students in this category, as the institutions do not have accurate socio-economic data. However, the Ministerial Task Team (MTT) appointed in 2016 estimated the figure to be approximately 20% of undergraduate students.

“Greater in-depth analysis and data collection is necessary to understand better the issues facing students who fall outside NSFAS eligibility and are self-paying. It is also difficult to know how many students are not accessing public higher education at all, because of financial difficulty,” Nzimande said.

He said stakeholders must take into account the substantial changes in the student funding environment since 2018, the student debt issues in the system, and many other demands on State funding for higher education and training, including postgraduate funding support, as well as the fiscal context.

Other initiatives implemented by government to support poor and missing middle students include:

• In 2016, there was a 0% increase on university tuition fees. The funding to cover this came primarily from the State;

• In 2017 and 2018, tuition fees increased by a maximum of 8% across the system, in accordance with an agreed compact across the system;

• In 2019-2021, tuition and accommodation fees were agreed to in terms of a CPI-linked compact;

• The department is working on a fee regulation policy framework, to be introduced for the period 2022-2024;

• In 2019, Nzimande approved funding for transfer to NSFAS to address the historic debt of NSFAS qualifying students registered in 2018, following a due diligence process announced at the time of the announcement of the new bursary scheme. This process is being managed by NSFAS with the support of universities.

In approving the reprioritisation of funds from the department’s budget to support the NSFAS shortfall for 2021, Cabinet, in March 2021, requested the department to conduct a policy review of student funding.

The Minister said he will present the policy review to Cabinet at the conclusion of this process.

Source: South African Government News Agency

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