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Missing-middle varsity students score

Prega Govender Mail and Guardian (

A total of 560 medical and 480 engineering students will become the first beneficiaries of “missing middle” families to receive free tertiary education thanks to a R200-million donation from the private sector.

They are among 2 000 students selected to be part of a pilot project aimed at providing financial assistance to missing-middle students, whose family annual income is above R122 000 but below R600 000.

Currently, only students with a family income of up to R122 000, as well as those who attended quintile one, two and three schools (the poorest schools), and whose families are recipients of social grants qualify for financial assistance from government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

Sizwe Nxasana, who heads a ministerial task team that is investigating a comprehensive funding model for poor and missing-middle students, confirmed that 60% of the R140-million donated by the private sector came from commercial banks. He said a further R60-million had been committed.

Others selected to participate in the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme’s pilot project include:

  •  40 first-year pharmacy students;
  •  204 actuarial science students;
  •  280 students pursuing a degree in chartered accounting;
  •  140 students involved in making artificial limbs or prostheses; and
  •  300 students studying for a humanities degree.

Nxasana, who is the former chief executive of FirstRand, said the students’ full cost of study, including tuition, accommodation and books, would be paid.

Last year his task team presented the government with a blueprint on how to fund students from poor and missing-middle backgrounds. One of the recommendations was that the government should progressively provide free higher education at undergraduate level for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan said, given the magnitude of student funding requirements, it was imperative that a clear road map for a better higher education and training system was developed. He also said the Heher commission of inquiry investigating the feasibility of fee-free higher education would complete its work by June this year.

Gordhan’s deputy, Mcebisi Jonas, said there was a need for a national indaba on education and training “to try to resolve the basic issues and fundamental issues that confront our education system”.

“That’s probably the more complex part and that requires leadership across the board,” Jonas said. “From government it does require more visionary leadership; it requires visionary leadership in the private sector, in civil society etcetera. And I dare say that we lack that. To be frank, in ’94 it was nice, we had strong leadership across the board. Let’s face it, today we have a serious challenge.”

Nxasana said his task team was now undertaking a detailed feasibility study on a new model of student funding, in line with treasury regulations, adding that between R45-billion to R50-billion would be needed annually to fund poor and missing-middle students.

“In terms of treasury regulations, there’s a whole lot of details that goes into how the whole thing is going to work.” A final report would be presented to the government before the end of the year.

Leon Campher, the chief executive of the Association for Savings and Investment South Africa, whose members also donated a large amount to the pilot programme, described it as “a wonderful initiative. It’s a genuine public-private partnership, which for me is very encouraging. It’s good for the country,” he said.

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