South Africa's student financial aid scheme, which this year will spend R600 million (£26 million) supporting more than 81,000 needy scholars, is to be reviewed under education minister Kader Asmal's new National Plan for Higher Education.
The government wants to know how the scheme can help improve access to public higher education, which is faced with dwindling student numbers, and how it can raise student success rates.
Pretoria has also asked the scheme's board to review income cut-off levels, coverage, the practice of not providing full-cost loans and the possibility of targeting priority fields for support. The board must report back by September this year.
Professor Asmal said that the government was committed to ensuring that able but poor students were not excluded from higher education. The importance attached to student aid, he said, is indicated by the fact that the scheme became a statutory agency in 2000, and by state allocations of R2.1 billion since 1994.
A total of R2.9 billion has been spent on loans and bursaries since then. Numbers of students helped rose from 72,000 in 1996 to 81,000 this year. All in all, more than 376,000 poor students received financial assistance in the five years to 2000.
Loan recovery from graduates has begun in earnest, with R.5 million recovered in the past financial year. Roy Jackson, chief executive of the Tertiary Education Fund that operates the scheme, expects R160 million to be recovered in the current financial year, thanks to new laws that enable the fund to dock repayments from graduates' salaries via employers and banks.
Universities and technikons are allocated funds to cover the fees of poor students according to the demographic profile of their students.
Students are eligible for loans and bursaries that cover fees, accommodation and books, based on their academic potential and family income. Those who achieve good results are able to convert 40 per cent of their loan into a bursary that does not have to be repaid, providing an incentive to succeed.
Professor Asmal seems willing to expand the scheme. "Although the government's contribution has been increasing annually, the financial aid scheme appears to be inadequate to meet the needs of students from poor communities," he said.
Some 20 per cent of more than 400,000 students benefit, but there has been only a small increase in the number of annual awards because inflation has pushed up fees.
Ministers feel that by not providing a loan to cover full study costs and by stretching limited funds over a wider net of students, they may be discriminating against students whose families are unable to make up the difference.
But the government's greatest concern is to make efficiency gains by raising student success rates. Some 20 per cent of students drop out, and too many take too long to obtain their degrees. Improved access, Professor Asmal points out, is meaningless if students fail.