The so-called “missing middle” – students whose household income extends up to R300 000 with several dependents – are those who don’t qualify for NSFAS financial assistance because they aren’t deemed poor enough, but who still cannot afford to pay their study fees. These students may be academically deserving but fall into a bracket that restricts them from continuing with tertiary studies.
Here are some of the good stories from students of the missing middle:
Inam Pinyana grew up in the deep rural village of Mhleleni, near the town of Tabankulu, in the former Transkei.
His mother, an Adult Basic Education and Training (ABET) educator, is the sole provider in the village home he shared with his brother and about eight cousins, whose parents are either unemployed or deceased.
Since his mother earns reasonably well in her job, relative to others in the same and neighbouring rural areas, Pinyana has been deemed not poor enough to qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) but his family is not wealthy enough to pay for his studies.
As a second-year Radiography student at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, Pinyana has applied successfully to have his outstanding study debt from 2015 deferred, and no longer needs to pay his registration down payment up front. His University has made this much possible.
“You cannot imagine how I felt [upon] hearing such good news. It was a relief in my heart. My mother screamed when she heard the news.”
The debt clocked up from a year of electrical engineering studies in 2013 had been covered by a loan, which also covered his registration last year, but there had been no additional money to pay for his first year of Radiography studies last year.
Though Pinyana’s application was successful and he is able to study, his financial worries are far from over: “Even now I am struggling with the money for transport from Provincial Hospital [where he is “staying by grace” in the student nurses’ home] to NMMU, and next week my lectures begin.” His mother, who is under administration, gives him money for food when she can, but he also relies on the food parcels given to financial needy students by NMMU’s on-campus clinic, and has to borrow textbooks.
Nathan Maree started a degree in analytical chemistry at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University in 2014. After a semester, he realised it wasn’t the right fit for him and put his studies on hold, until 2015, when he registered for a degree in Human Resources.
Maree did not qualify for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) as his mother, a single parent who is a medical assessor for a medical aid company, earns reasonably well in her job. However, she cannot afford to pay his study fees.
For the second half of 2014, he worked hard as a lifeguard at Malabar public swimming pool and as a bartender, to pay off the fees he owed for his semester of chemistry. His mother paid his registration fees for his new course last year, having arranged a loan through her work.
But he still owes all his fees for 2015.
As a student at NMMU, Maree is able to continue his studies, having applied to have his 2015 study debt deferred. The university’s “down payment relief” programme means he also doesn’t need to pay his registration fees up front.
“Debt relief has really helped a lot. I am so happy. Otherwise, I would have taken another year off to work to pay off those fees.”
Thozamile Nkomo lives with his aunt and three cousins in George. His mother died when he was 13 and he only met his father a few years ago.
Determined to pursue a career as a newspaper reporter, the 23-year-old last year completed his second year of BA Media, Communication and Culture studies at Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. His father, who serves in the army, had been supporting him, but the relationship is strained – and the money dried up.
Some of the costs of his studies were covered by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) – but, with no other fixed financial support, he ended the year owing the university almost R13 500.
Ordinarily, he would not have been allowed to continue studying until he had paid up, but NMMU’s efforts to assist students against the backdrop of the #feesmustfall movement, and assist the 2015 student intake with debt relief, means he can return to campus this year. He will have to pay back this money when he is working, but if his academic results are good he’ll have less to pay.
“This is a great opportunity, and something the university should have done a long time ago. So many people could have been given an opportunity to complete their studies … I am quite excited for the year ahead.”
Boniswa Hadi – Final-year Financial Management student Boniswa Hadi, 24, of Butterworth, receives NSFAS funding but it never met all her study needs.
Her mother tries to meet her living expenses but at the end of 2015 she still owed NMMU R2 340.
Boniswa Hadi credits NMMU’s debt and down payment relief in helping her education dreams get back on track.
“This is hugely welcome. I would have been forced to quit my studies. I need to get my qualification to help relieve my mother from financial stress,” she said.
Xola Vukapi – Lusikisiki resident, Xola Vukapi, 21, is grateful her debt relief application has been successful and the R14 150 she owes will not prevent her from obtaining her Diploma in Accounting.
Xola was orphaned after her dad died in 2011. Her mother died while she was in primary school. She was cared for by her aunt, an informal hairdresser, who attempted to raise money for her studies.
“This means so much to me – I was so stressed. This debt relief is my only hope in enabling me to continue my studies at NMMU,” she says.
This year, Xola also received National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funding to continue her studies but if NMMU had not intervened, her debt would have prevented her from registering.
The resolve to look into debt situation and funding challenges experienced by students at NMMU and other South African universities followed massive and heroic local and national protest action led and mobilized by and through a broad-based #FeesMustFall student movement and related campaign.
Having listened to demands articulated by NMMU workers and students, spearheaded by various student formations including the SRC, the Council, the Vice-Chancellor and Management Committee resolved that it cannot be that academically deserving but financially challenged student are denied the opportunity of obtaining a tertiary qualification, simply because they happen to be from poor communities.
“Student debt has intensified as families feel the pressure of the economy, especially when the fee levels and cost of higher education keep on rising. We need to do what we can to help. Our interventions will result in belt-tightening for 2016, 2017 and possibly 2018 but we will have to make do with the resources we have and find new resources,” NMMU Vice-Chancellor Prof Derrick Swartz shared with staff late last year.
The debt and down payment relief is one of several innovative initiatives introduced by the University. It is an intervention that NMMU implemented in November last year in the aftermath of the #FeesMustFall demands, and which has since been tweaked during wide consultation sessions with various student groups to ensure all-round agreement with the criteria.
To date more than 5 000 students have applied for debt and down payment relief at NMMU with more than 90% of them being successful. An appeals process is in place for those who are initially turned down.
Attending to the realities of the “missing middle” – the children whose household income extends up to R300 000 and has several dependents – is a phenomenon the Government has recognized too. It hopes to introduce its own short, medium and long-term steps to support this sector. Its funding model will be tested in the 2017 academic year for full implementation in 2018.
In terms of NMMU’s appeals process for debt and down payment relief, the panel comprising management and student representative will consider case by case the circumstances of those whose income is not more than R399 000 in terms of financial means, and look well beyond the students’ most recent marks in order to arrive at a fair outcome.
The objective of the exercise for students and management, is as much about broadening access, as it is about ensuring that those truly deserving, particularly in terms of their academics, are not disadvantaged by virtue of being of lesser means.
The appeal panel consists of #FeesMustFall student leaders, SRC members, finance and academic curriculum experts to ensure all-round representation and appropriate expertise.
In the interim, the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is not yet able to meet the needs of those who are eligible (whose combined family income is less that R124 000 per annum). Of the 7 315 who applied for NSFAS funding at NMMU, only 3 036 were successful and received funding. A further 2 780 were successful but NSFAS did not have enough funding for them.
Like other universities, NMMU is awaiting news as to how much of the extra R6.2bn it will receive from NSFAS in terms of clearing historic debt. In NMMU’s case, the amount is presently R21.3m, brought down from R85m late last year.
When President Jacob Zuma committed to a no-fee increase at universities in 2016, it meant that NMMU had to pick up 70% of the difference between the 0% increase and the 9% increase the University had planned.
The Higher Education system relies on two sources of income – government subsidy and student fees. But since 1994, the Government’s portion has declined forcing universities to raise fees to make up the difference in order to run their institutions.
Furthermore, since 1994 student numbers have more than doubled from 440 000 to 990 000.
A commission is looking at the fees subsidy issue and alternative funding models but none of these interventions are likely to immediately positively impact on the present status. Instead, universities will have to seek their own solutions in meeting the financial gap.
The financial challenges facing universities are further compounded by the outsourcing issue.
In line with it’s charter of values, NMMU is also working hard to re-absorb the currently outsourced service functions and staff, namely, Cleaning, Catering, Gardening, Window cleaning and Security. Now that we are acutely aware of the exploitative and inhumane working conditions, seen largely in low wages, inadequate or no benefits, and the casualization of menial work, the University cannot continue to outsource service labour. The University has offered to raise the minimum wage levels at R5 000 cost to company, and have extended study and clinic benefits to staff currently employed by outsourced companies.
NMMU has committed to ensuring that all academically-deserving but financially challenged students will not be turned away. It has committed that through good governance, belt-tightening and increased efforts to raise further funds via third-stream income and other fund-raising initiatives, to do its bit.
Annually, the University recovers up to 93% of its debt and so its historic debt level – though still high – is far lower than most other universities. NMMU is presently owed R4.3m debt by NSFAS students dating back to 2013 or R21.3m all told.
This figure will rise rapidly with its present initiative to get those unfunded NSFAS and “missing middle” students into the system via its debt relief and down payment opportunity.
The University has established various management working groups to examine how to save funds and grow resources. It has also frozen all professional support service posts in order to conduct an audit with the end goal of seeking savings through the cutting of posts and restructuring.
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