Parliament joins university calls for more student aid

South Africa’s parliamentary committee on higher education has joined vice-chancellors in calling for more money for student bursaries and loans, in the interests of equity and access and against a backdrop of patchy student unrest and fundraising campaigns by universities.

The portfolio committee on higher education and training also identified key areas for the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, to tackle following a meeting with Minister for Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, Deputy Minister Mduduzi Manana and Msulwa Daca, chief executive officer of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS.

The committee said the department needed to consider immediately increasing NSFAS funding from the current R9.5 billion (US$0.8 billion) allocation for 2015. The DHET gave R8.7 billion to universities and colleges in 2014.

Yvonne Phosa, chair of the portfolio committee, said in a statement last week that although there had been successes in improving both student access and funding at tertiary institutions, the DHET was capable of further progress.

“The department has to have some level of control over university fees. The fee structures of some universities are a stumbling block, as the more fees grow the more students cannot access higher education opportunities,” Phosa said. There was a need for the department to scrutinise cost drivers at universities, which were among the causes of fee hikes.

Phosa added that the department should closely monitor infrastructure development at universities, as expansion of teaching and learning facilities would ensure that universities could enrol more students in future – and students had to be accommodated in residences.

She also called for effective fundraising by NSFAS to boost its coffers.

“We would like to have NSFAS providing us with their fundraising strategy, because we will use it as a measuring tool to monitor this area and determine progress as far as fundraising is concerned.”

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo told University World News that the strategy would be to attract private donors and funders to contribute to the existing pool of funds for eligible students from poor backgrounds.

Student protests over lack of aid

Funding shortages have already seen protests at some universities at the beginning of the 2015 academic year.

Walter Sisulu University’s Buffalo City Campus was reopened in February after funding related incidences. At the time of going to press, classes at Tshwane University of Technology remained suspended due to student protests over financial aid shortages.

Lectures were temporarily suspended at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Westville campus when about 300 students demonstrated over funding. And there have been disturbances at Cape Peninsula University of Technology’s Bellville campus.

Some universities have taken action to help needy students.

One is the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, which launched a ‘One Million One Month’ campaign in February to raise funds for needy students to cover fees. Within a short period, R2 million had been raised.

Vice-chancellors respond

Dr Jeffrey Mabelebele, chief executive officer for the vice-chancellors group Higher Education South Africa or HESA, told University World News that NSFAS funding was insufficient to cover bursaries or loans to all eligible applicants who qualified and were offered a place by a university.

“Universities have to find other financial means to support students who do not receive NSFAS loans. Given the role of NSFAS in supporting students from poor socio-economic backgrounds, extra resources need to be found for the scheme.”

Vice-chancellors have long suggested that the private sector be “mobilised and incentivised” to provide funding to the NSFAS.

For instance, said Mabelebele, a tax incentive for donations to higher education institutions could be extended to companies that provided funding to the student financial aid scheme, “obviously within the limits of what the national fiscus can accommodate”.