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ISFAP assisting 1 700 students of the ‘missing middle’

Students are facilitated in areas including funding, accommodation and social support.

NOMPU SIZIBA: The Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme was launched in 2017. Its aim is to assist young students who qualify for university academically, but are too poor to afford to pay university fees, but not poor enough to qualify for government funding – also known as people who are “the missing middle”. The fund has managed to assist hundreds of students since its establishment, and it has raised excitement about the fact that the BBBE codes of good practice have been revised to enable companies to be better incentivised to assist in the area of education funding.

To tell us more about the student financial aid programme and how more could be done to help materialise the hopes of the missing middle, I’m joined on the line by Sizwe Nxasana, who is chairman of the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme [ISFAP]. Thanks very much, Mr Nxasana, for joining us on the show. The Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme was launched with a view to aiding young people looking to study at university, but who were described as being part of the missing middle. This is a great innovation for these young people. How does the fund assist these students and what are the criteria to qualify?

SIZWE NXASANA: The criteria to qualify for financial assistance from the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Programme is that our students come from families that earn between R350 000 joint household income to R600 000, because NSFAS [the National Student Financial Aid Scheme] covers students who come from families that earn between zero and R250 000. So that’s the first thing.

But for ISFAP the main thing is that this is not just about financial aid. It is about making sure that, first, we are attracting young people and directing them to occupations in high demand – in other words, to degrees that have high demand and skills. And, second, that when they are in the programme they are supported to ensure that they succeed, they pass, they graduate and they find employment.

How do we do that? In addition to financial aid, a student who is funded and supported has to almost participate in a programme which includes additional academic support, life skill support, social support, and work with the universities that are now ISFAP partners or ISFAP partner universities to ensure that these students do pass.

It’s unlike a lot of other programmes where people are parachuted from outside, so we work with universities where we pay for problem managers that work with the students, make sure that if they need decent academic support, it’s very structured and it’s sustainable. If they need accommodation or anything like that, we will work with the university to make sure that all of those things happen.

NOMPU SIZIBA: That’s excellent.

SIZWE NXASANA: And to make sure that they do their work.

SIZWE NXASANA: So, Mr Nxasana, since its inception a couple of years back, what sort of progress have you made in terms of the number of people you’ve been able to assist?

SIZWE NXASANA: This is our third year of operation. We started in 2017 at seven universities. We are now at 11 universities. So we are not at all universities yet, so I can count the universities in which are involved. They include the University of Venda, the Tshwane University of Technology, the University of Pretoria, UJ or University of Johannesburg, Wits, UKZN, UCT, and Nelson Mandela University.

So the students must be studying degrees in high demand, so we fund medical doctors, engineers, actuaries, accountants, data scientists and so on. Those are sort of the skills that we support. ISFAP is founded by organised business, so we have Business Leadership South Africa, the Association of Savings and Investment, Asisa, which includes the big insurance companies, and the Banking Association, South African Institute of Chartered Accountants and the First Rand Foundation. 

So clearly we have employers, especially the big employers on the other side, that are funding all of this. Right now we’re funding about 1 700 students at these 11 universities and the success rate has really been amazing, considering that these are degrees that have a very high failure rate.

Just over the two years the average pass rate has been around 91, 92%, which is more than double what it would typically be for those students, especially those that come from the missing middle backgrounds or the poor working class backgrounds.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Yes, but obviously in qualifying for your assistance, these young people are obviously academically brilliant already.

SIZWE NXASANA: Yes, they are. They have to, in order to have been accepted into those degrees or programmes. But, as we all know, the fact that a student has got straight As or has passed really well in high school does not necessarily mean they are going to pass in those degrees, because very often they are underprepared for what they are going to meet or come across or deal with at university. So, that’s why I say we use the same benchmarks, because if you take these very same students that are in those faculties, typically the pass rates would be somewhere well below 50% in the first or second year of study. And the graduation period would be much, much longer because they take much longer to complete.

NOMPU SIZIBA: In terms of going forward, if you are managing to churn out such successful talented young people, is there more room for growth? Are you courting more corporates to get involved?

SIZWE NXASANA: Yes, one the things that happened recently is that the government has passed revised broad-based black economic empowerment codes, where companies can now contribute up to 2.5% of their payroll – which is quite significant – towards bursaries in exchange for additional BEE points. So, we are calling on employers essentially to come on board, especially because they can then increase or improve their BEE status in exchange for funding young people to produce the skills that the economy and the country needs. So, there is a huge opportunity. So, Code 300 of the generic codes just passed and converted, and that why we hope to be able to expand ISFAP to all 26 public universities in the country. That can cover and support a lot more students going forward.

NOMPU SIZIBA: We know that you are very passionate about education. You were once a teacher and all of that before you got into the corporate world.

SIZWE NXASANA: Well, I’m a teacher right now.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Thanks for correcting me! But I just wanted your views, given your wealth of experience and having been all over the place in corporate, in academia and so on – what are your thoughts around government’s approach to trying to boost the education system, because our educational outcomes really just leave a lot to be desired currently?

SIZWE NXASANA: There are a number of initiatives. One that I’m involved in, which is particularly supporting the current basic education system, is the National Education Collaboration Trust. So, we are working with the Department of Basic Education, for instance, to implement the new twin-stream curriculum to help them with the migration of early childhood development from the Department of Social Development to DBE. Looking at the 21st century learning and teaching models, that should really prepare young people for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. So that is already taking place. And the president at Sona last week spoke about the National Reading Coalition or the reading culture that needs to be improved in the country. So, though the NECT, the National Education Collaboration Trust, we are now working on that programme to support the Department of Basic Education.

So, there are a number of things that are happing in the country that are really positive. Obviously we need to take a long-term view in terms of how these things are going to bear fruit in terms of improvement of results and our performance as a country in education.

NOMPU SIZIBA: Thanks very much Mr Nxasana, for taking time to speak to us today.

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