It is estimated that more than 500 000 South African youth need funding for tertiary education, which will afford them the opportunity to gain the necessary skills to find employment and play an active role within the economy. 

According to the Education Series Volume V: Higher Education and Skills report, released by Stats SA earlier this year, roughly 51% of South Africans between 18 and 24 were without means to pay for university fees in 2017. 

In a move to close this gap in access to education, National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) funds were made available to a large group of students. However, to qualify for funding, students have to have a maximum annual household income of R350 000. Unfortunately, more than 200 000 students who do not qualify are left out in the cold. 

Leana de Beer, Chief Operating Officer at Feenix, defines these students as the missing middle – those too poor to afford university fees but not poor enough to qualify for government funding. “While NSFAS is a welcome relief for disadvantaged students, postgraduate students and those in the middle are left with little to no options to fund their tertiary studies.”

De Beer believes that access to education should not be solely dependent on access to sufficient funds.  “While getting an education may be considered a luxury to many South Africans, it is probably the most essential element in the move to end the cycle of poverty. Having a tertiary education opens up doors. It loosens the grip of poverty for low-income households and provides middle income households with the means to expand their earning potential.”   

Students who are unable to complete their degrees will struggle to find suitable employment and are faced with a number of additional challenges.

“Despite good academic performance, under-graduates with outstanding debt are taken off the graduation list and their results are withheld until the debt has been settled. The sad reality is that these students will most likely not be able to work without a qualification, until the debt has been paid off, which could take months or even years. 

Some universities around the country have implemented funding programmes for those who fall into the missing middle. This funding is an option for students who don’t meet the NSFAS criteria yet still require financial aid. In addition, government has set up a mixed funding system for the missing middle, which protects them from fee increases and assists with grants and loans. Several non-profit organisations have also been formed to address this need, including Feenix – an online crowdfunding platform for students. 

“Feenix is committed to breaking down these barriers, so that the youth have equal opportunities for growth, development, and ultimately a successful career,” she adds. “Everyone deserves a chance in life. Debt-free education is the first step towards eliminating poverty and unemployment.” 

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