The missing middle continues to be excluded from pursuing higher education because of the eligibility requirements stipulated by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
The "missing middle" is the term given to students who are considered to be "too rich" to receive funding from NSFAS, but are not rich enough to pay for their studies completely out of their own pockets.
These students may be thought of as "too rich" for NSFAS, but the reality is that higher education is extremely expensive and unaffordable for most.
In a recent Parliamentary meeting, one member in attendance noted that looking at the current NSFAS funding model, access to higher education for the missing middle was becoming fewer and fewer. It was a big injustice for parents of the missing middle to pay taxes, yet their children had no choice but to go to a private university.
The exclusion of the missing middle from accessing and affording higher education has been continuously criticized and discussed, with the "solution" always being that the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) and Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, promising to develop and implement more "comprehensive student funding models".
This new funding model was said to be finalised in January 2023.
More of South Africa's students are entering higher education, with majority of them needing financial aid. Although the idea of free education is noble, given all of the country's challenges, the question of whether free higher education in South Africa is not only possible but also sustainable, arises.
Asive Dlanjwa from the South African Union of Students (SAUS), says:
We’ve come a long way [since] before 2018, more than 90% of households can [now] have access to institutions of higher learning.
[But] do we have free education? We don’t, because we still have the missing middle. Missing middle are still children of the working class and those students are still not able to access institutions of higher learning, owing to a student funding model that does not cater for them.
NSFAS also made the decision to stop funding postgraduate students in 2021, meaning many are unable to further their studies after they've completed their undergraduate qualifications.
In a number fields, one qualification is simply not enough.
Expecting postgraduate students to pay for their studies without financial aid is odd, since they previously couldn't afford their undergraduate studies without help from NSFAS; it is very unlikely that their financial situation has changed by the time they're able to apply for postgrad.
NSFAS and the South African government have made the promise of free higher education for all, but is seemingly going against that statement by regularly changing the bursary scheme's eligibility rules and stopping the funding of certain courses and qualifications.
Students at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) recently took intense protest action against NSFAS for the latest change made to eligibility requirements.
The latest change states that students studying for less than 60 course credits will no longer eligible for accommodation, living expenses and transport allowances, which leaves thousands of students stranded, as they were reliant on NSFAS to continue and eventually complete their studies.
The economy has changed and therefore, issues have changed, and families are struggling more now, added Dlanjwa.
Right now, we need higher education. Higher education would allow us to upskill and reskill our people to respond to what are now the prevalent conditions which are facing our economy. Time to advance and invest in higher education aggressively...It’s an issue of the priorities of government. We are spending billions of rands in the sector but are not getting the return.
The idea of free education is also tainted by the fact that NSFAS has been the centre of many instances of fraud and corruption, with the latest revelation involving R5 million in mismanaged funds, leaving students with not much hope.
Rudie Heyneke, from the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (OUTA), is in agreeance with Dlanjwa.
If we relegate the wasteful irregular expenses, not only in NSFAS. If we look at the broader higher education department. If you put all that money in one basket, we can reach that middle class.
If we start to import good governance in higher education and curb corruption; if we are transparent, then we will have more money available for more things. The funds are there. It’s about using it and not abusing it.
OUTA recently revealed its findings that resulted from an investigation into NSFAS, questioning whether certain areas of spending are necessary, or are actually draining the bursary scheme's resources, at the expense of student subsidies, most notably the R45,000 student accommodation allowance cap implemented this year.
NSFAS Spokesperson, Slumezi Skosana, feels differently from Heyneke and Dlanjwa, stating that higher education is actually free and that we are currently in the midst of it.
Skosana added that government has made promises to focus on the poor and the working class, and believes that they are doing so.
When asked if the income threshold stipulated by NSFAS that allows students to qualify for funding should be increased from R350 000 to R600 000, Skosana said:
Middle class, according to studies, means someone earning R22 000 per month which equates to R264 000. Everyone in country, according to that measure, would qualify...South Africa can’t afford to pay for all higher education across country.
Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, previously revealed that government is investigating introducing a loan scheme to assist missing middle students. Information of this missing middle student loan is set to be revealed when the DHET publishes its Comprehensive Student Funding model.