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Funding: Is Free Education for Everyone?

by Staff Reporter

So the government has committed to a policy of fee-free education. The question on everyone’s lips is whether this will put an end to the missing middle’s fight for funding.

Through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the government has established a programme whereby students in financial need can apply to receive funding.  This funding will mean that their tertiary studies are free. However, NSFAS eligibility requirements may restrict certain students from qualifying for free education. This raises an important question: can those students, who don’t qualify for NSFAS, afford to fund their own studies?NSFAS Funding Eligibility: Past vs. Present

Before the fee-free policy, most of the money given out by NSFAS was actually a loan that had to be paid back once you finished your studies. However, there was still a chance that up to 40% of your loan could be converted into a bursary. Since then, the South African government has allowed all new and returning students to be awarded a full bursary if they met the eligibility requirements set out by the NSFAS.

Let’s take a look at the requirements for NSFAS from before and after the fee-free policy:

Past NSFAS EligibilityPresent NSFAS Eligibility
 You are a South African citizen

 You are a South African citizen


 Your household has a combined annual income of less than R122 000 per year


 Your household has a combined annual income of less than R350 000 per year


 You have applied for a course at a university/college


 You have applied for a course at a university/college


The South African government’s commitment to free education has made it a lot easier to qualify for NSFAS, as they want the majority of people to be able to benefit from the new policy. However, many South Africans still feel like they have not been given an opportunity to benefit from the new policies surrounding funding and education.

What about the missing middle?

In the past, many students have found that they have been excluded from NSFAS funding because of the eligibility requirement for overall annual income. These students are often in the middle class and have an annual income which is higher than the NSFAS’ eligibility restriction for combined household income. However, these students are still too poor to be able to fund their own studies or to qualify for any bank loans. This means that these students are left in a position where they are too ‘rich’ to receive free funding and too ‘poor’ to find their own funding routes.

According to The Daily Vox, NSFAS have attempted to account for the missing middle by increasing the restriction on a student’s overall combined annual household income from R122 000 to R350 000. This was confirmed by the Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize who admitted that the government “had a low threshold in the past” where “there were few people who qualified for NSFAS”, but that the new fee-free policy changed the definition of ‘poor and working class’ to include students whose families earned up to R350 000.

However, students whose families earn between R350 000 and R600 000 are labelled as middle-class and are therefore not included in this new NSFAS definition. These middle-income families are often supported by people who are teachers, nurses, and other public service officials. These people are not ‘rich’ and are not able to afford the tuition and living expenses that come with sending their children to university or college. This means that the large numbers of students who come from middle-income families are still being excluded from receiving an affordable education.

Catering for the missing middle

In order to fairly accommodate all students who cannot afford tertiary education, the South African government needs to find other ways of including the missing middle in funding opportunities. This might mean that they need to change the NSFAS eligibility restrictions to include both the working and the middle class.

It must be noted that good first measure has been taken to do this, as the government made the decision to prevent all students from being subjected to tertiary fee increases in 2018. Other funding programmes, such as the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme, have also been introduced whereby funding is given to students who are studying scare skills, instead of being allocated based on household income. 

Are any other students still being excluded?

At this point, the government is still trying to find appropriate amounts of funding for those students who are just entering tertiary institutions. This means that they haven’t been able to clear the debt of any past NSFAS students or to prevent current students – who qualified for NSFAS before the fee-free policy – from having to make repayments.

Overall, we can all agree that the government’s commitment to making education free is a noble one. There is still quite a way to go towards making the fee-free policy fair and more widely applicable to all students in need, but we can already see how free education is beneficial for working-class students.

Once the government’s five-year plan for implementing free education has been carried out, we will be in a better position to evaluate the overall success of the policy and to improve its reach.

EduConnect 2Cents

“I believe the children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way. Show them all the beauty they possess inside. Give them a sense of pride…” 

– Whitney Houston

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