High pass rate puts aid under pressure

January 23, 2003

South Africa's student aid programme is struggling to keep up with the demand for higher education from hard-up school-leavers whose final grades have improved for the third consecutive year.

But many poorer students may not receive financial support as their numbers outstrip the money available.

But the hopes of many who are poor will be dashed, as would-be students again outstrip money available for aid.

This is despite the huge growth of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme since its launch in 1991, and a period in the late 1990s when student numbers slumped.

South Africa has more than 600,000 students in universities and technikons, more than 70 per cent of them black - most of them impoverished.

Roy Jackson, chief executive officer of the NSFAS, said: "We are able to help seven out of every ten people who qualify and are shown to be poor through a means tests.

"We'll struggle to raise the proportion of students we can support above seven out of ten, but are hoping business will come to the party to help plug the gap," he added.

Mr Jackson said the bursaries and loans scheme was thriving. It was considered one of the finest in the world, he said, thanks to the government's political will and its help, for example, in using the tax system to recover loans from graduates' employers.

The NSFAS last year supported just over 100,000 students with R750 million (£50 million), R187 million of it from recovered loans, R500 million from the government and the rest from donors and companies.

This year, the amount should rise to R850 million, enabling about 110,000 students to be assisted.

The NSFAS is about to receive support from some big companies. The business sector is being encouraged to target cash for loans at the kinds of students it will need, such as engineering or accounting students in their final years.

The NSFAS is looking at ways to ensure that all school-leavers who are eligible for higher education know that they can access funds. The funds are block-allocated to universities and technikons.

Announcing the final exam results, education minister Kader Asmal urged all poor students keen to study to approach institutions of their choice for funding.

"No student from a disadvantaged family who is academically talented should be denied the opportunity to study," he said.

In the past three years, the government has raised matriculation from 49 per cent to 68 per cent. The latest improvement was 7 per cent.

The final exams were judged by the Scottish Examination Board in 2000 to be up to its standards, although critics argue that the gains are not as spectacular as they appear because of low pass requirements, among other things.

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