Universities South Africa (USAf) News Update

Debt relief as 9500 students receive the USAf-raised ETDP SETA grant

In an environment where thousands of students continuously battle with university tuition fees, a minimum of 9500 students were spared this annual pain when their tuition fee bill for 2020 was completely wiped out - thanks to a R280 million grant from the Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA). Universities South Africa (USAf) had negotiated this grant in keeping with one of its goals to facilitate student access, retention and success - all in the quest to produce intellectuals for this country. The grant was a once-off benefit for the 2020 academic year.

Of the total amount received, R200 million was earmarked for undergraduate students while R80 million was targeted at those enrolled in post-graduate programmes. All of the beneficiaries are "missing middle" students, meaning their annual family income falls in the R350 001 to R600 000 bracket, which places them above the qualifying threshold of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme - yet also precludes them from qualifying for study loans from commercial banks.

We spoke to a sample of this grant recipients drawn from five of South Africa's 26 public universities. We share their anecdotes below.

Ms Andiswa Dunge

Ms Andiswa Dunge (left), a medical student at the University of Cape Town, says this bursary brought both relief and gratitude. Without any form of funding or aid, previously, the thought of her spiralling debt often raised emotional turmoil in her. Dunge wishes to thank ETDP SETA and USAf deeply for the positive impact they have had, not only on her, but also on the many students who received assistance. "I have come to realise that not having financial assistance can really hinder one's ability to perform at their best, due to mental and emotional strain that creates. So I also thank UCT for selecting me as one of the recipients of this bursary."

Ms Khethile Mbhele (right), who is studying Electrical Engineering at the Mangosuthu University of Technology, says in her first year in 2018, she was funded by NSFAS. However, due to errors that occurred between her institution and NSFAS in the administration of her bursary, that funding had ceased by 2019. This caused a lot of stress for her family who now had to pay her tuition fees and other expenses for accommodation, food and learning materials, including design equipment.

She says nothing brings her more joy than knowing that her family will no longer be financially burdened. The ETDP SETA bursary cleared up all her fees for 2020. She hopes that this bursary endures until she graduates, otherwise she still faces inevitable debt. For the relief she got, she is grateful to ETDP SETA, USAf and MUT.

Ms Khethile Mbhele
Ms Vunene Chabalala

Ms Vunene Chabalala (left), a BCom Accounting student at the University of Johannesburg, faced close to a R100,000 debt in 2020. This included the cost of her accommodation. The possibility of dropping out in 2021 was very real. She frequented UJ's Financial Aid offices, often inquiring about funding possibilities until one day, a "kind lady" informed her about the ETDP SETA bursary. Chabalala says this administrator helped her complete the application. Although she got R50,000 in bursary amount, she is immensely grateful that she could register for the 2021 academic year, thanks to the halved debt. She says a corporate entity has since settled the accommodation component and now her 2020 debt has been cleared completely.

Mr Simon Sithole (right), an Advanced Diploma in Public Management aspirant at Mangosuthu University of Technology, says when he applied for admission into this programme, he had no idea how he would pay the fees. He says even the R1 000 that his institution required for registration proved to be a tall mountain to climb. He applied for the ETDP SETA bursary after he saw it being promoted on MUT's website. Sithole says he cannot describe his happiness upon receipt of the positive response. This bursary, which completely cleared his tuition debt, rekindled what was a dying hope of completing his studies. For that he has ETDP SETA and USAf to thank. He has implored the two organisations to continue reaching out to others in similar situations.

Mr Simon Sithole
Mr Ndinannyi Mugivhi

Mr Ndinannyi Mugivhi (left), an Honours student in Business Management at the University of Venda, says he was for a long time caught between a rock and a hard place, with his thoughts racing between abandoning the post graduate qualification because he had no means to pay his tuition fees, and soldiering on because of the value that this qualification holds. His father, who survives on part-time jobs, was doing his best to chip the debt away. Studying in those conditions was unbearable to say the very least. He says thanks to ETDP SETA and USAf, even students with little means are able to dream of a better future once again.

For Mr Rofhiwa Ligege (right), University of Venda's Bachelor of Earth Sciences student in Mining and Environmental Geology, "what may seem like an ordinary act of 'select, click, send' to one person sitting at a computer in one part of the country can be a blessing to another sitting elsewhere." This is how Ligege describes the process that led to him receiving the ETDP SETA grant. Following the death of his brother and, subsequently, his father, who was responsible for his tuition fees, Ligege says a dark cloud hovered above him. He did not know where to turn.

This bursary came at a time when he had been seriously contemplating stepping down from a Bachelor's degree to a certificate programme so as to look for a job sooner. He therefore received the news of this sponsorship with disbelief because he had been trying his luck at a range of bursaries, to no avail. He says he only began to believe this was real when he received an email from the University, advising him to complete and sign an agreement form. He only needed R20 000 to cover his outstanding fees and that is the amount that UNIVEN allocated to him. "This bursary restored hope in me," Ligege concludes.

Mr Rofhiwa Ligege

First in his family to ever set foot at a tertiary institution, Mr Mohapi Mokeretla (right), who is reading towards an Advanced Diploma in Mediation at the Vaal University of Technology, describes his pre-bursary situation as "hopeless". His fears stemmed from thoughts that he might not complete his studies due to unpaid tuition fees. NSFAS had covered his undergraduate costs. He was now looking for a new benefactor for his postgraduate studies. After many unsuccessful attempts, Mokeretla says he was now distraught as no one in his family had a stable enough income to assist him. He even tried his luck at internships and administrative jobs but even those did not materialise.

Demoralised, he decided to re-focus his energy in his studies. Soon thereafter, he was notified via SMS that he had been awarded a bursary from ETDP SETA. He even looked up the entity because he had never heard of it before. "Today I am a proud South African who no longer feels neglected. This makes me want to assist others in future, to grow the spirit of ubuntu in our nation," he concludes.

Mr Mohapi Mokeretla
Ms Annah Mokone

Ms Annah Mokone (left), also studying at the Vaal University of Technology towards an Advanced Diploma in Logistics Management, says she learned of the ETDP SETA bursary on Facebook. She says when she enrolled at VUT she had no means to pay but she believed that something was going to work out, and it has. Mokone truly appreciates that ETDP SETA and USAf came to her rescue.

In the life of Ms Santhuri Padayachee (right), University of Cape Town's BCom Honours student of Economics, the ETDP SETA bursary was an answered prayer as she had been deeply worried about how she would settle her debt. In addition to relieving her of that burden, she says the bursary functioned as a lever that pushed her to excel academically.

Like many others in the missing middle category, Padayachee had applied for numerous bursaries, fearing financial exclusion. "This bursary helped me in more than one way," she says, adding that it energized her to pursue a Master's degree in 2021. Her gratitude goes towards the ETDP SETA and everyone who was involved in the decision making that saw her being awarded the bursary.

Ms Santhuri Padayachee
Ms Nomcebo Sangweni

Ms Nomcebo Sangweni (left), yet another recipient of this bursary who is pursuing an Advanced Diploma in Human Resource Management at Mangosuthu University of Technology, was funded by NSFAS through her previous Diploma programme. When she enrolled for this advanced qualification her parents, who are unemployed, had to step in. She says it was difficult. But that is now a problem of the past because ETDP SETA intervened at the right time.

From USAf, the organisation that helped secure this grant, Professor Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer, says "Although we are immensely grateful for ETDP SETA's generosity, the R280 million has reached only 4% of students in the missing middle category. A large majority remains left out in the cold." That is why USAf continues to negotiate with private sector organisations to join it and form additional partnerships. Recognising that the ETDP SETA grant was a once-off relief for the 2020 academic year, Professor Bawa says "we therefore need more partners to help us drive a fundamental transformation of our society by increasing access to higher education, of students from the economically struggling class. It is also critical to retain those students in the system for the duration of their study, and that they succeed and complete their studies in record time."

On behalf of the ETDP SETA, Chief Executive Officer, Mrs Nombulelo Sesi Nxesi says she is delighted by their partnership with USAf. She says USAf's coordination of this bursary helps to minimise administrative glitches which could result in duplication at institutions. Mrs Nxesi has also echoed the need for more of such interventions and partnerships for accelerated positive outcomes. "It is only through education that the lives of our people can be improved for the better," Mrs Nxesi concludes.

Dr Linda Meyer, USAf's Director: Operations and Sector Support, who played a leading role in this fundraising drive, says in terms of the contractual agreement between USAf and EDTP SETA, universities are required to complete bursary agreements with the beneficiaries. Institutions have until 30 March 2021 to meet this obligation.

By way of numbers, missing-middle students represent between 200,000 and 250,000 or between 16.6% and 20% of the total current student population (1,2m) at the 26 public universities.

The writer, Nqobile Tembe, is a Communication Consultant commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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