SASSFE to focus its work on student support, policy advocacy and curriculum reform

10th August 2023


The gains made through the #FeesMustFall movement have resulted in thousands of poor and working-class students receiving tuition and accommodation support through NSFAS and increased scholarships for students. While these gains have made some progress in transforming the exclusionary nature of tertiary education in South Africa, more remains to be done to assist academically deserving students from disadvantaged backgrounds.


Recently, thousands of students have been left destitute in June and July as they have not received their NSFAS monthly stipends because of an abrupt and poorly handled system change by NSFAS.


The recurring student protests seen at the advent of every academic year and throughout the academic year are an indication that although NSFAS increased its financing threshold to accommodate more missing middle students and provided monthly allowance to all its beneficiaries, weaknesses in NSFAS systems and abrupt policy changes still subject thousands of students to dehumanising conditions on campus.


Food deprivation, fee blocks, accommodation evictions, untransformed academic curricula, lack of transformation in the academy, and mental health challenges are issues that many students still contend with daily on campus.


Approximately 700 000 (seven hundred thousand) students were funded by NSFAS in the 2022/2023 academic year. When juxtaposed with the 480 000 students funded in 2018, which indicates that the demand for financial support to obtain higher education has been on the rise.


Although access to higher education has been on the rise, succeeding at university remains a hurdle for many students due to insufficient support measures. Government, through NSFAS and other policy interventions, must continue to ensure that all students that are academically deserving, irrespective of background, are provided an opportunity to a dignified higher education experience.


It is against this background that SASSFE has resolved to intensify its work around three key focal areas:


Student Support Measures

A 2015 study conducted on food deprivation amongst students at the University of Free State (UFS) revealed that close to 50% of students who drop out of the system cite food deprivation as a contributing factor to their academic difficulties. The rise in the cost of living has further exacerbated the food and accommodation crisis on campus. In an economic environment with high inflation and allowances remaining the same, students are extremely deprived.


To ease the burden on students, alternative forms of support such as food banks, shopping discounts for students and other initiatives are critical. An example of these interventions is a food bank system hosted at The Sanctuary at Wits University which provides lunch to students everyday on campus. SASSFE is also proud to have been a regular donor to Food Bank, however, more donor funds are required to advance the work that we do in partnership with Wits University, and others.


Mental health and anxiety also continue to plague students. While financial support easing the stress of funding for students, it does not ease the mental health issues that students come into the university system with. This is more so the case for students from communities plagued by violence and other traumatising socio-economic issues. Bursars and financial aid schemes must be encouraged to look at the support they offer to students broadly, by also catering for the mental health of students. This could consist of therapy, counselling and other psychological services incorporated into the financial support for students.


In addition, other student support measures such as their sanitary materials, general health, and study materials and technological devises remain an impediment to students’ success on campus. These support measures should not only cater to the immediate needs of students, but should also ensure that vulnerable students are holistically set up to succeed.  This is why SASSFE urges government, universities, and bursars to put systems in place that will also ensure students’ success after gaining access to the higher education sector.



Higher Education Funding and Student Debt Crisis

Student debt has unfortunately turned into an exclusionary tool in the higher education sector. Close to R16 billion is owed to universities in unpaid university fees. Every year, students that have outstanding debt exceeding a specific threshold are excluded from the university system until they can find a way to settle the debt. This challenge is mounting and will become a major fiscal issue in the foreseeable future if left unresolved.


The defunding of students during the academic year exacerbates the situation. Just recently, the Law Student’s Council at Wits University, ran a campaign to help raise funds for students who had been defunded by NSFAS. While organisations such as SASSFE were able to make a small contribution, it is just a drop in the ocean compared to the number of law students that have not been able to complete their post-graduate law studies.


Student debt forgiveness has been something activists have been calling for. Countries such as the United States of America (U.S.) have taken a multi-pronged approach to the issue. Part of their policy included forgiving the remaining balance on federal student loans after some payments and after some work has been done for federal, state, Tribal, or local government; the military; or a qualifying non-profit. These are the kind of policies that could be considered in South Africa to assist young people out of their education-linked debt. For example, in South Africa, we could consider implementing debt-relief measures for students that are SASSA beneficiaries, and for those who work as public servants, such as, teachers, nurses, and police personnel.


At a policy level, this may take some time to resolve, and will require input from various parties including civil society organisations. In this effort, SASSFE, works to galvanise former alumni, including former student activists, to make donate and to come up with policy alternatives.


The continued exclusion and stresses of students must be seen as the crisis that it is, otherwise, we will find ourselves with young people who had potential left behind in the periphery of our economy and society, further contributing to the challenges of unemployment and inequality which is currently at its worst in our country and globally.


Curriculum Transformation

Even with the rise of organisations such as Rethinking Economics for Africa, Rethinking Accountancy and other lobby groups, civil society reemphasizes the need to change our teaching material, pedagogies and epistemologies in a way that speaks to the developmental needs of the country, the people, and the planet.


Existing knowledge systems must be challenged and evaluated against the needs of our country, people, and the planet. There must be a focus on developing students that are critical, ethical, innovative, can undo the systems created by colonialism such as spatial planning, exclusionary financial systems, exploitative business practices and disregard for our environment, and contribute to the development of sustainable futures.


Curriculum transformation is key to ensuring that the environment of academia is diversified and speaks to different racial groups, women, the LGBTQI+ community and people from different socio-economic backgrounds.


There are the three focal areas that SASSFE is working to address. We urge all stakeholders to proactively think about solutions and plans to mitigate some of the issues mentioned above. We also urge those who have successfully passed through the university system not to forget the plight of students and to give back in a way that supports the students of today.


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