The Education Deans’ Forum expresses concern over funding crisis

Published On: 25 March 2024|

The year 2024 is a difficult time to be a leader in higher education, considering diminishing government funding evident in the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and in Fundza Lushaka, Government’s bursary fund dedicated to students pursuing careers in the Education discipline.

These were the opening words of Professor Chika Sehoole (right), the outgoing Chairperson of Universities South Africa’s Education Deans Forum (EDF) at their first sitting for 2024, on 6 March.

The NSFAS, which reports to the Department of Higher Education and Training, administers financial aid to needy students pursuing university education in any discipline. The qualifying criterion is a bachelor’s pass and proof that the applicant’s family’s combined annual income does not exceed R350,000. In 2024, the NSFAS has added a loan scheme targeted at students in the missing middle (those whose total annual family income is above the NSFAS threshold of R350,000 and below a ceiling of R600,000).

The Fundza Lushaka fund, administered by the Department of Basic Education (DBE), is available for four-year Bachelor of Education degree (B.Ed.) aspirants seeking to specialise in Foundation Phase teaching (Grade R – 3); Intermediate Phase teaching (Grade 4 – 6); and Senior and Further Education and Training Teaching (Grade 7-12).  Fundza Lushaka is also available to students looking to pursue a one-year Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE) for Senior Phase (Grade 7-12) teaching.

At the first meeting of the EDF, Professor Sehoole, who is also the Dean in the Faculty of Education of the University of Pretoria, bemoaned the fact that some of their returning students could not register in 2024, due to the Fundza Lushaka funding not being confirmed – thanks to a decline in Government’s budget allocation for 2024.

“The Faculty of Education at UP is now short of 200 in the targeted 2024 enrolment figures, due to students relying on NSFAS and Fundza Lushaka not receiving funding. Another 200 to 300 returning students were not able to register at UP in 2024 – as they waited to hear from NSFAS.  This uncertainty has also affected postgraduate education students who could not secure funding.”

DBE concerned by imminent shortage of teachers

The gathering also heard from Professor Mpine Makoe, Executive Dean at the University of South Africa’s (UNISA’s) College of Education, that the DBE representatives had griped at a recent UNESCO-led policy forum on the shortage of teachers due to declining funding for teacher education. Professor Makoe said contrary to the other years when her college had helped other faculties reach their enrolment targets, the College of Education was in 2024 struggling, for the first time, “to meet our own enrolment targets. This problem is not limited to South Africa but extends to the region, and globally. I was disappointed that not many of us attended that forum – where we should have been representing our sector and voicing our opinions in this regard.”

The funding challenge was so severe, as highlighted by Professor Sehoole, that some students were still waiting for the NSFAS confirmation of funding at the beginning of March – a full month after classes had begun. He stated, nonetheless, that deans were appointed to help institutions navigate through such challenges, noting, therefore, that they must soldier on.

From the University of Cape Town, Professor Azeem Badroodien, Director at the University’s School of Education, said Fundza Lushaka had just dropped their top 30 Maths and Science post-graduate certificate in education (PGCE) students in the Education Faculty. He said UCT had approached the Education and Training Development Practice (ETDP) SETA for assistance and were given a provisional nod. However, as at 6 March, UCT was still waiting to hear from the ETDP SETA.

Professor Tawanda Runhare – Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Studies – Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education at the University of Venda, raised concerns over the short notice that the ETDP SETA tended to give universities for funding submissions, causing difficulties for students who might lack the financial means to register.

From the University of Johannesburg (UJ), Professor Mdu Ndlovu, Vice Dean of Research and Postgraduate Studies, also emphasised the significant impact of funding uncertainty on students’ social security. UJ’s PGCE programme had witnessed a 50% enrollment decrease due to the withdrawal of funds, compelling the university to step in with essential support such as food parcels for 3,500 students awaiting NSFAS funding. Additionally, concerns were raised about threats from accommodation providers, creating an imminent risk of students being evicted.

Professor Sehoole closed this discussion on a note expressing concern over what he called “flip-flopping”, especially on the part of sector education and training authorities (SETAs). “That the SETAs will commit to fund students in one year – only to withdraw it the following year, is destabilizing. It is causing uncertainty amongst vulnerable students,” he stated.

These funding challenges were presented as requiring immediate attention to ensure the continued well-being of students, and mitigation of risk to public universities.

The ETDP SETA steps in to assist

During his input to the EDF, guest speaker Mr Mabu Raphotle (below), Manager: Skills Planning at the ETDP SETA, acknowledged the funding uncertainty that had affected education students across the university sector – especially during 2023.

Mr Raphotle said the ETDP SETA was, at the time of the EDF meeting, considering the first cohort of 850 university applicants for funding approval by Friday, 8 March.  To qualify, applicants had to have been first entering university education in 2023 or completing their first year in an education programme in that year.  He added that from Monday, 11 March, the ETDP SETA would investigate assisting many more students – including applicants drawn from Fundza Lushaka — pending an additional budget allocation by the ETDP SETA Board.

In a quick update to USAf on Monday, 18 March, Raphotle confirmed that the ETDP SETA was considering applications received from a total of six universities, and would finalise their funding lists for 2024, by Friday 22 March.  They would give precedence to students who were promised funding in 2022, got into the system but dropped out in 2023 due to lack of funding. “We will consider paying off their 2023 tuition fees and take them through for 2024 and beyond– provided they pass.”

The Annual EDF Colloquium scheduled for May 2024

In addition to addressing funding challenges, the EDF announced plans for its annual Colloquium, set to take place on the 17th of May 2024. Professor Sehoole called for nominations and volunteers for the steering committee, extending a special invitation to faculties specialising in the foundation phase and early childhood education. The Colloquium’s thematic focus, Languages across the curriculum with a special focus on African Languages in the Foundation Phase, promises an insightful exploration of critical education facets.

The outgoing Chairperson provided a strategic roadmap for the steering committee’s immediate tasks, involving abstract development and the call for papers towards the end of March. The committee aims to unveil the comprehensive programme by the end of April, presenting a promising nine-week timeline for a transformative Colloquium.

According to the EDF constitution, the Forum has two key responsibilities: to foster independent research in the broad field of education and to oversee the practice of teacher education in the higher education sector. The deans fulfil that mandate by debating and sharing information, expertise and concerns and seek solutions to common challenges encountered in faculties / schools of education.

In that context, the EDF has continued to serve as a steadfast advocate for best practices in teacher education in South African higher education. Having highlighted the challenges faced by student teachers in 2024, the Forum reaffirmed its commitment to continue seeking collaborative solutions.

Co-written by Kayley Webster, a Communication Consultant contracted to Universities South Africa and
‘Mateboho Green, USAf’s Manager: Corporate Communication