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South Africa has set itself goals of eradicating poverty, reducing inequality, growing the economy by an average of 5.4%, and cutting the unemployment rate to 6% by 2030.

The South African government understands that education, training and innovation are critical to the attainment of these goals, and a number of interventions have been made in making higher education accessible to all.

Through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), government has opened the doors of learning to 1.7 million students since 1994, at a cost of R59 billion.

Government’s view is that no poor, yet academically deserving student, is excluded from education and training opportunities due to lack of funding.

The National Development Plan (NDP) 2030 states that different parts of the education system should work together to allow learners to take different pathways that offer high quality learning opportunities. There should also be clear linkages between education and training and the world of work.

The NDP further requires that by 2030, at least 30 000 qualified artisans be produced per year. In order to realise this, government is subsidising 50 registered and accredited public Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges in South Africa, which operate on more than 264 campuses spread across the rural and urban areas of the country.

Students at TVET colleges receive education and training with a view towards a specific range of jobs, employment or entrepreneurial possibilities.

Last year alone, NSFAS supported about 480 000 poor undergraduate students to access TVET colleges and universities, disbursing loans and bursaries totalling R14 billion.

An amount of R15.2 billion has been allocated to NSFAS for student bursaries and loans in 2017. From that allocation, NSFAS will utilise R718 million for full bursaries for scarce and critical skills from the National Skills Fund.

About R76.6 million will be provided for funding of students with disabilities.

NSFAS will also be funding more than 200 000 first-time and continuing students at TVET colleges in 2017.

Student-Centred Model

The scheme has entered a new era of the Student-Centred Model, which was rolled out fully to all public universities and TVET colleges from the 2017 academic year onwards.

Under this model, NSFAS is able to have a direct relationship with the students it funds, and is also able to receive funding applications directly from applicants and communicate the outcomes of those applications directly to the applicants via SMS and email.

Thanks to the new model, returning students who were funded in 2016 will automatically be funded in 2017 without having to apply for financial aid, provided they have signed the agreement form for financial assistance, and passed at least 50% of their enrolled modules.

No means test for social grant beneficiaries

Another notable government intervention is students who are receiving social grants and have applied to NSFAS for financial assistance in 2017.

In ensuring a smooth process, social grant beneficiaries will no longer need to go through a means test to qualify for NSFAS funding, if their applications are accepted by an institution of higher learning.

They automatically qualify to receive funding because they have already been means tested by the Department of Social Development.

This year, government is paying the fee increase, capped at 8%, for all qualifying registered students with a gross combined family income up to R600 000 per annum. The grant covers the increases for tuition fees and university or college-managed accommodation.

According to NSFAS figures, more than 20 000 new students at 23 universities across the country have already been approved for funding for the 2017 academic year. More than 107 000 including, returning students from 25 universities, will be funded by the financial aid scheme.

Financial aid for “missing middle”

More than 1 000 students from the “missing middle” stand to benefit from a new student funding scheme.

The Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme (ISFAP) will be piloted this year at six universities and one TVET college.

The scheme will fund students who come from families with income levels above NSFAS threshold, but who cannot afford post-school education.

The programme will fund the studies of about 1 500 students studying in a number of general formative degrees, as well as seven professional qualifications and one artisan qualification for the duration of their studies.

The 2015 Presidential Task Team Report recommended a reviewed funding model for poor and “missing middle” students to be developed and tested in the 2017 academic year, for full implementation in 2018, if practical.

The private sector has already raised about R140 million of a targeted R200 million to finance the pilot scheme.