NSFAS must include post-grad students in its budget

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix and Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix and Sunningdale). Picture: Supplied

Published May 10, 2024



South Africa's National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has been deemed one of the most effective schemes because it has supported more than five million students since its inception in 1996.

However, its effectiveness can be understood only when we analyse its success rate. The success should be aligned with the number of students who graduate, their field of study and their capacity to be employed within the formal economy.

Providing access to the much-required funding is the initial phase of the success story, but more information is required to determine how relevant the impact of the scheme has been in South Africa.

In 2021, the scheme funded about 67% of all students registered at universities nationally and additional students registered at TVET colleges. About 60% of students at tertiary educational institutions are supported through the scheme.

Despite the many students being funded, we must grapple with high university dropout rates. “Times Live” reported in November 2023 that more than 60% of scheme recipients needed to complete their qualifications.

The reasons are varied and need to be categorically analysed so that there are fewer students leaving universities. This cannot be achieved without a systematic monitoring system of all grant holders and an analytical process to document and track student demographics and other relevant data.

There are multiple reasons why students have dropped out, one of which is the miscalculation of all the expenses of a university education. Many students fail to consider living expenses besides tuition fees.

Other factors include academic unpreparedness, work commitments and the incorrect selection of qualifications and subject areas. The recent decreased allowance allocation by the scheme will, inevitably, contribute towards the high dropout rates, especially if recipients have no other source of income.

The government has duly allocated a large amount of funds to the education sector to offer young South Africans an opportunity to attain qualifications and improve their livelihoods. With high dropout rates, they must realise that funding schemes are only the first step in the process.

Despite the statistics, the NSFAS recently prioritised funding first-time entry university students and indicated that it did not see the need to fund postgraduate and second qualifications. The minister of education affirmed the decision after two postgraduate students were denied funding to complete their postgraduate studies in law.

This should be re-evaluated and analysed parallel to the number of funded students who graduate and attain employment in the relevant industries.

The economy does not have the capacity to absorb graduates with Bachelor degrees, and many would argue that the formal sector demands postgraduate qualifications in addition to a first degree for job entry.

Since the inception of democracy, funding schemes dedicated to education, like the NSFAS, have enabled many impoverished people to attain a qualification. Therefore, there has been an increase in the number of bachelor and grade 12 graduates, which has heightened competition in the job market.

This intensified as the economy has been shrinking significantly in recent years, and we have experienced many business closures due to the pandemic, riots in KwaZulu-Natal and increasing crime rates. Therefore, a competitive environment calls for knowledge, skills and expertise through postgraduate studies and additional qualifications.

Statistics South Africa’s Quarterly Labour Force Survey of 2023 revealed that graduate unemployment is an alarming 33%. Economists and analysts have stipulated that a shrinking economy is a central determining factor of the scenario. They fail to consider that the much-needed skills and qualifications in the formal economy are mismatched with the qualifications that unemployed graduates possess.

Scholarly research revealed in 2022 that many bachelor graduates were forced to join the informal economy and become entrepreneurs, irrespective of whether they had the knowledge and skills.

The fundamental aim of facilitating and funding educational qualifications for any nation is to enhance the livelihood of its citizens. The recent stance to decline financial support to postgraduate students opposes the long-standing goal of strengthening and developing a functional, educated society.

The fourth UN Sustainable Development Goal clearly articulates the need for education to be inclusive, equitable and supportive of lifelong learning opportunities.

The attainment of the objectives of the fourth goal also impacts the possibility of meeting the requisites of the eighth goal, which emphasises the need for decent work and economic growth to be achieved. This can be achieved only through a skilled and developed citizenry empowered with the required qualifications and skills to impact our society in the long term.

It is time for the NSFAS to realign its objectives to the sustainable developmental goals so that worthy and dedicated students can pursue postgraduate studies with the support of their available resources.

The high dropout rates of university-level funded students are a cause for concern, which warrants an in-depth analytical system that can guide the NSFAS to determine how their budgets should be allocated.

An inclusive approach is required so that students committed to completing their second degrees can lean on financial support from the NSFAS. The National Research Foundation primarily supports university postgraduate students and must stipulate how many students they can help and within which subject areas.

Similarly, the NSFAS must consider a dedicated amount of finance for postgraduate students. Specialised skills at the postgraduate level can serve our society in the long term, and graduates have an improved opportunity to be employed within the relevant sectors.

Dr Sheetal Bhoola is a lecturer and researcher at the University of Zululand, and the director at StellarMaths (Phoenix and Sunningdale).

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