New funding model needed for burning higher education

Johannesburg – The protests by university students across South Africa have placed the spotlight on the seemingly insurmountable funding challenges that the higher education sector faces.

In a statement issued by Universities South Africa, an organisation representing local universities, it pointed out that in 2021 student debt to universities has risen to about R14-billion.

The resulting economic impact of the national lockdown has put severe strain on government’s subsidy allocations, National Students Financial Aid Scheme’s funding and university operating budgets, and more importantly the pockets of hopeful university students wishing to study this year.

Leana de Beer, the CEO of student crowdfunding platform Feenix, said that no individual or stakeholder can solve the university funding crisis alone.

“Qualifying students not being able to access university education is a shared frustration for both students and the higher education sector stakeholders. The only way we will be able to create a more inclusive, equitable and financially sustainable system is through collaboration between the private and public sectors,” said De Beer.

Nationwide protests to end the financial exclusion of some students at South African tertiary institutions has shone the light on those considered the “missing middle” in the country’s government- funded educational system.

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A proposal on the possibility of providing comprehensive funding to tertiary students, including those that do not qualify for government assistance, will be developed by June, Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Blade Nzimande told parliament on Tuesday.

Professor Anesh Singh, the executive director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal Foundation, said a collaborative approach is needed to deal with the funding challenges.

“Funding of higher education is a joint responsibility of the learner, the institution of higher learning, the educational system, business and society at large. Unfortunately, no single stakeholder is going to have a one-size-fits-all solution. The only way that we will be able to address the funding challenge is through private-public partnerships (PPPs), which as universities we are constantly working towards,” said Singh.

David Marupen, the deputy director of the resource mobilisation centre at the University of Limpopo, said the increased demands on universities have meant that the funding from traditional sources like government subsidies and tuition-fee income are often not enough to cover everything.

“This situation over the last year has been compounded with universities having to also redirect funds to set up multimodal teaching platforms to ensure that students are able to continue their studies. The added pressures require universities to create a third stream of income through collaborations with alternative funders and the private sector,” Marupen said.

In 2015, Rhodes University launched its VC’s Guarantee Scheme, which ensures that no academically deserving student should be denied the opportunity to continue their studies, provided that they continue to perform satisfactory throughout their studies.

Luyanda Bheyile, the development fundraiser and interim manager of Alumni Relations and Stakeholder Engagement at Rhodes University, explains that to increase financial aid funding, the university launched its Isivivane fundraising campaign.

Last year, it was able to raise about R10-million to help fund students, including some of those on its VC’s Guarantee Scheme. Recognising the financial strain that many students face, the university also provides flexible payment plans for those who are unable to pay the upfront registration fees.

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The University of Venda (Univen) has seen the value of the partnerships created beyond the traditional forms of funding. Using Feenix as an example, Dr Takalani Dzaga, the director of marketing, branding and communication at Univen, said that its continued partnership will undoubtedly impact on many students who still struggle to get the much-needed learning resources.

“It is through these types of collaborations that we are able to tap into additional funding. The work done with Feenix has resulted in more than R1.1-million worth of donations being given towards study fees, laptops and data, among others,” said Dzaga.

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