Student financial aid: A little can go a long way for SA’s missing middle students

Posted on July 10, 2023

Higher education in South Africa does not come cheap. On average, it costs R19 000 a month, all inclusive, to put one student through an undergraduate BSc, BA, BEng or BCom degree at a contact university. The cost is several thousands of rands more per month if a student is studying a specialised degree such as medicine.

Few households have the means to pay that kind of money to put one child through university, let alone two or more children.

This includes households earning between R350 000 and R600 000 a year – the “missing middle” who do not qualify for financial assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) but still cannot afford higher education.

Total household income of R352 000 a year works out at a gross monthly income of around R29 000. After deductions, including income tax, pension fund contributions and medical aid, a household’s take-home pay for the month would probably have dwindled to approximately R15 000.

There goes the dream of giving one’s children a higher education – without which it is becoming harder and harder to find employment.

Between a rock and a hard place: borrow or stay at home

Some parents in missing middle households borrow to fund their children’s university education by, for instance, taking out loans or leveraging their home loans.

Others just give up.

Instead of going to university, their children go straight to work – if they can find a job. In the workplace, without a tertiary education, they are considered unskilled and paid accordingly.

As for missing middle youth who do not find work and cannot afford to go to university, they sit at home.

The same goes for students who do qualify for NSFAS assistance but lose it if they take longer to complete their degrees than the rules allow. NSFAS has a “plus one” limit for funding qualifying students, meaning the standard duration of their degree plus one extra year.

There may be good reasons for a student taking longer than, say, five years to complete a four-year engineering degree. What often happens is that a student finds it hard to cope with the workload in the final year and splits the credit load over two years. The student then falls out of the NSFAS net and, if no other source of funding is available, fails to complete.

That is a terribly sad thing to happen to a young person who is so close to completing a degree, but it happens more often you may think. If there is no money for them, such students go home feeling they have failed themselves and their family.

At the University of Pretoria’s (UP) Financial Aid office, we receive many calls from parents and siblings about a miserable family member who has only two courses to go and no hope of completing their degree. There are also lots of graduates out there who have finished their degrees and walked the stage at their graduation ceremony but do not have their degree certificate because they owe the university money for their tuition. Many prospective employers will not accept an application from a graduate unless they attach their degree certificate to their CV. Again, that severely limits the graduate’s career options.

Postgraduate enrolments are shrinking too

There is another group of students for whom we should spare a thought – potential postgraduates.

As is clear from the high numbers of unemployed graduates in our country, a first qualification is not an automatic ticket into the job market. Employers can afford to pick and choose these days, and we are finding more and more that job-seekers need an honours or master’s degree to be invited for an interview.

NSFAS does not provide postgraduate funding and other possible sources are extremely scarce. There are few donors willing to fund this level of higher education. The funding shortfalls are affecting postgraduate enrolments, which universities generally are struggling with.

Some might argue that universities themselves should do more to assist missing middle and postgraduate students who lack the means. Squeezed by load-shedding costs, inflation, shrinking state subsidies and donor constraints, universities simply do not have enough to go around.

This is why the University of Pretoria’s Giving Day on 24 July 2023 is so important – and such a good cause.

A little goes a long way

A once-off contribution of as little as R10 could end up making all the difference to a missing middle student or would-be postgraduate in need. Many small contributions can add up to a lot. As at 2022, donations received from individual donors have brought in enough funds to assist 73 students, of whom 39 have graduated.

Giving takes only two minutes on UP’s Giving Day website, which has a secure payment channel.

Donors can give their names or remain anonymous, and can leave a message of encouragement on the website for students in need.

Those who cannot afford to contribute financially are welcome to become Giving Day ambassadors instead, spreading the word about how “a little goes a long way”.

A little really does go a long way. Please join us in making a difference on Giving Day.

Gugu Ihenacho is Senior Assistant Director: Financial Aid at the University of Pretoria’s Department of Finance.

- Author Gugu Ihenacho

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