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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


DE VILLIERS, Pierre. The role of NSFAS in facilitating access to higher education for students from poorer communities in South Africa. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2017, vol.57, n.4, pp.971-989. ISSN 2224-7912.

In the previous political dispensation, the student population at universities did not reflect the demographics of South Africa. In 1990, for example, only 37,7% of the students were black while no less than 50,3% were white. In the new democratic South Africa people were of the opinion that the injustices of the past would be rectified and that more people who had previously been prevented from entering the higher education system as a result of discriminatory racial laws would now be able to enter the system. However, financial constraints became an important factor prohibiting prospective students from poor communities to enter the system. The expenditure of the state on higher education in real per capita terms decreased after 1990. The percentage of GDP devoted to higher education as well as the percentage of total state expenditure and the percentage of educational expenditure devoted to higher education continued to decrease over time. Universities have three income streams: subsidies from the state, tuition fees and the third income stream including items like donations, investment returns and contract research. The result being that universities were forced to increase tuition fees by more than the inflation rate to balance their books, because state subsidies had become a smaller percentage of their income. This made higher education even more unaffordable to the poor. To rectify the situation, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was established in the middle 1990s. With NSFAS the student receives a 100% loan, but depending on the success rate a student's loan could proportionally be converted into a bursary. For example, for every 25% of courses passed, 10% of the loan is converted into a bursary. Thus, a maximum of 40% of the loan may eventually be converted into a bursary. If a student registers as a final year student and succeeds in completing his degree, that year's loan is also converted into a bursary. There is thus a built-in incentive in the scheme to be successful in order for students to be able to decrease the size of their loan. NSFAS started on a small scale and 40 002 students received NSFAS awards in 1995 and R154 million was paid to students. The state then contributed R40 million towards NSFAS. Over time that changed quite substantially and in 2016 NSFAS helped 225 950 university students (as well as 225 557 students at TVET colleges) and paid out R10,3 billion to the students (with a further R2,11 billion paid to TVET students). In 2016 the state contributed R14,04 billion towards NSFAS. In total the state has contributed R56,8 billion to NSFAS while over time R72,3 billion was paid out to NSFAS students. On average 121 253 university students were helped annually for the period 1995-2016 and since 2007 on average 138 034 TVET students were supported. According to NSFAS annual reports NSFAS students, pass more than 75% of the courses for which they enrol. When the progress of the cohorts of NSFAS and non-NSFAS students that entered universities for the first time in 2000 to 2004 are compared, the NSFAS students seem to be more successful. A higher percentage of the original group of NSFAS students obtained a qualification by 2009 and a smaller percentage dropped out relative to the non-NSFAS cohort. It does seem as though NSFAS funds make it possible for students to stay in the higher education system even if they are not fully successful. The financial burden on non-NSFAS students is too high if they are not successful and they then tend to leave the system. Over time the demographics of university students changed dramatically and in 2014 71,1% of the students were black. Although it is by no means the only reason, NSFAS definitely had a positive influence on getting more students from previously disadvantaged backgrounds into the higher education system.

Keywords : Higher education; state subsidies; tuition fees; third income stream; increasing costs; NSFAS awards; state expenditure; NSFAS; loan repayment; student profile; student performance.

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