Election of Chairperson; National Research Foundation on Progress in Implementation of New Postgraduate Funding Model & Transformation Framework; Briefing by SA Union on Students on Funding for Postgraduate Students

Higher Education, Science and Technology

31 August 2021
Chairperson: Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

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The Committee convened virtually to elect a new Chairperson, and consider briefings by the National Research Foundation on progress in the implementation of the new Postgraduate Funding Model and South African Union of Students.

The National Research Foundation spoke about the policy implementation, its performance against the 2013 ministerial guidelines targets for postgraduate funding, development of the policy, its implementation and financial modelling. It spent some time also outlining challenges that have been experienced with the policy and how it intervened to address some of the challenges. In the main, the biggest challenge is the limitation of resources.

The South African Union of Students was represented by its newly elected President General, Mr Lubabalo Ndzoyiya. The Union presented its position on postgraduate funding for students. Its presentation covered various sources of funding for students; and funding challenges and recommendations. The Union then outlined its recommendations, which, amongst others, included that government must allocate more funds to the Foundation, so that the Foundation can accommodate more postgraduate students; the National Students Financial Aid Scheme must fund students according to National Qualifications Framework levels so as to close the bridge between Advanced Diplomas and Honours programmes; government must make means to compel the private sector to inject funding for postgrad studies.

Members were generally pleased with the policy but struggled to comprehend the necessity of imposing age restrictions, race classifications and the reduced percentage target of funding people living with disabilities.

Members then asked questions on strengthening the Department’s transformation agenda; what informed the targets; encouraging black African students to struggle achieving beyond 75%; the ratio of students who will be funded as exceptional achievers and those funded as financially deserving; what informed the age limit; reasons behind some of the expensive courses in university; required financial support for the Foundation to achieve the National Development Plan targets; prioritising funding for students living with disabilities; key changes that will be presented by the policy; and what factors or challenges have been experienced that may affect or alter how the new funding policy is implemented; fully-funded students versus partially-funded students; reasons for race classification; the outcome of the engagement with National Treasury and was a commitment made to provide the extra funding to allow the students to complete their research; other factors and challenges have the Foundation experienced that may affect how the new funding model is implemented; and financial constraints of the Foundation.

Meeting report

Ms Shaanaz Isaacs, Committee Secretary, opened the virtual meeting and welcomed everyone present. She announced that the Committee needed to elect a new Chairperson.

Ms N Mkhatshwa (ANC) was nominated and elected without any contestations, and she accepted the election.

The Chairperson handed over to the National Research Foundation (NRF) for its briefing.

Briefing by the National Research Foundation on progress in the implementation of the New Postgraduate Funding Model and Transformation Framework

Dr Romilla Maharaj, Executive Director: Human and Infrastructure Capacity Development, NRF, took Members through the presentation, which touched on the performance against 2013 ministerial guidelines targets; policy development, policy implementation and financial modelling, inter alia.

In terms of the DSI/NRF Postgraduate Funding Policy challenges, NRF reported the following:

-Low progression rates from Honours to Masters and Doctoral studies;

-Long time to completion and advanced age at completion;

-Transformation of postgraduate (PG) cohort at Masters and Doctoral levels;

-Bursary values were not comprehensive and inadequate to cover full cost of study;

-Funding of financially needy students at all PG levels;

-No policy synergy with the (NSFAS) National Student Aid Financial Aid Scheme (Undergraduate-postgraduate pipeline).

Some of the policy interventions included, but not limited to:

-PG students will be funded without interruption up to the Doctoral level;

-The NRF will prioritise funding full-time studies;

-Age limits to achieve Doctoral completion by age 35;

-PG funding pipeline for NSFAS and ISFAP funded undergraduates;

-Fit-for-purpose financial packages for PG students.

As for funding constraints, as expected:

-The impact of the new DSI-NRF Postgraduate Funding Policy has resulted in a significant decrease in the number of students funded;

-The National Skills Fund (NSF) budget allocation has been declining over the years, from R254 million in 2016/17 to R151 million in 2021/22;

-Strategy to raise private sector funding for PG student funding through NRF-ISFAP Agreement has been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Briefing by the South African Union on Students on Funding for Postgraduate Students

Mr Lubabalo Ndzoyiya, President of SAUS, presented to the Committee and touched on sources of funding for students, funding challenges and recommendations. Some of the funding challenges highlighted included: the replacement of BTech qualifications with Advanced Diploma; defunding of PGCE (Post Graduate Certificate in Education) by NSFAS and the exclusion of PGDA (Post Graduate Diploma in Accounting).

SAUS makes the following recommendations:

-Government must allocate more funds to NRF, so that NRF can accommodate more postgraduate students;

-NSFAS must fund students according to NQF levels, so as to close the bridge between Adv Dip and Honours programme;

-NSFAS must, with immediate effect, reinstate the PGCE funding that was cut;

-Student debts for postgraduate students must be cleared. The debt can only be effective when you start employment;

-The government must make means to compel the private sector to inject funding for postgrad studies;

-Universities must fund best performing students who are enrolling for postgrad studies.

Discussion

The Chairperson sought for clarity from the Department about finalisation of the transformation framework, which would strengthen the Department’s transformation agenda, and whether it is the same for both the NRF and the Department; the status of the stage of development of the transformation framework. If these are separate initiatives, where do these frameworks relate or converge?

On slide seven of the NRF, what informed the equity targets displayed there? On slide 22, is there any recent data on what is displayed in the presentation, on that specific page? If one looks at the academic performance of “financially needy” honours students in 2017, it is interesting to see how that many white students were achieving at 75% and above, while the collective majority of black students were achieving between 60 and 64%, with only the least of them achieving above 75%. How can we get the black students to achieve above 75%?

What is the ratio of students who will be funded as exceptional achievers to those funded as financially deserving? What informs the age limit? Is there an analysis on the most costly qualifications in the public institutions at various levels of post graduate studies? There is a sentiment that some of these qualifications that provide skills that are really rare are costly; this does not allow the desired type of transformation, because students coming from financially disadvantaged backgrounds cannot afford getting into these courses.

It seems that the funding provided is only provided for the minimum it takes to complete the postgraduate studies. Have we made an analysis whether the beneficiaries of NRF are able to complete their studies within that minimum time to complete that qualification? Looking at government targets on the amount of students or graduates it wants to produce per annum in post graduate studies, has there been an analysis of how much support the NRF provides to realise those targets?

Slide 36 shows the amount of PhD students that could not be funded due to financial constraints; if there were no financial constraints, what number of contribution would this be?

Ms J Mananiso (ANC) pointed out that there were still challenges in terms of supporting people living with disabilities. In the presentation, it was apparent that people living with disabilities may not be a priority, and this is something that must be addressed. She had contacted one of the commissioners of the Commission for Gender Equality (CGE) to ask about the specific quota for people living with disabilities, and the commission indicated that it was seven percent. She encouraged the Department to prioritise them and ensure that they were included in the plans and targets appropriately.

What are the key changes that the postgraduate funding policy brought about in the existing NRF postgraduate funding mechanisms, and what factors or challenges have been experienced that may affect or alter how the new funding policy is implemented?

Dr W Boshoff (FF Plus) added his concern about the fewer students being funded for postgraduate students.

Ms N Tarabella-Marchesi (DA) asked the NRF about its funding model and its policy on funding. What is the difference in deciding to fully fund certain students and partially fund certain students? Why does this benchmark exist?

“We have to be aware of the realities on the ground. If we are seeing a significant number of black African students who are not able to proceed or unable to achieve more than 60%, we must remember that they come from backgrounds that are challenged and there are also language impediments or barriers. Most institutions, expect students to learn in English, which most of the students were not taught as a home language in their high schools”, she added.

She could not understand why there must be a race classification when it comes to funding on postgraduate students. There is not much disparity at that level; in fact, what is the point of that classification? Why does the NRF believe that its funding precedes what the University has already set as benchmarks on funding for students? Why does the NRF feel that it needs to classify its provision of funding according to race?

She also did not understand the issue of the age-limit policy. “Many students are forced to go find work in order to fund their studies and when their results are released, we wonder why they could not perform well”, she said. The policies go against the NRF’s objectives. She suggested that the NRF re-looked at its policies because it looks like they work against the objectives of the organisation.

In future, if such kinds of discussions are being held, it would help if the Minister or the Deputy Minister is present, so that these matters can also be ventilated by the political leadership. The matter of funding is a critical matter in this country, and this is evident by the student protests that happen at the beginning of almost every academic year. If the political leadership does not take time to be present in these discussions, in a way, it makes these discussions feel like futile exercises.

Ms D Sibiya (ANC) said that she was uncertain how the Department would address the issue of non-funding streams catered for postgraduate qualifications.

Ms C King (DA) said that when the NRF presented its Annual Performance Plan some time ago, it indicated that it received 20% funding from the parliamentary grant, DSI contract funding was 72%, and other income was 5% and sundry income of 3%, to make up the total funding. It was also indicated that there would be engagements with National Treasury to ensure that there would be funding for students that cannot afford to complete their research. What was the outcome of the engagement with National Treasury, and was a commitment made to provide the extra funding to allow the students to complete their research?

In the APP, it was also mentioned that the transition towards implementing the DSI/NRF postgraduate student funding policy will result in a decrease in the number of students funded, moving towards full costs of study. The DSI/NRF will continue to explore opportunities to fund those applications considered favourable. What other factors and challenges has the NRF experienced that may affect how the new funding model is implemented, because there is a shortfall?

She suggested that, when it comes to the race allocation, the NRF moved to the model that works from a disadvantaged perspective instead of race, to avoid exclusion and discrimination of deserving students. Lastly, will the NRF be able to fund postgraduate students? How will this have a bearing on the sustainability of NRF financially?

The Chairperson took a moment to welcome and introduce Ms D Mahlatsi (ANC) as the new ANC Whip of the Committee, moving from Agriculture to be part of this Committee.

Ms D Mahlatsi (ANC) wanted to ask about financial limitations of the NRF. Given the fact that it has engaged National Treasury on this, has it been able to engage the Department further on this, and what has been the Department’s response?

Secondly, she noted that slide 17 outlined the sectors that will be funded. When mentioning people living with disabilities, the framework has moved from 4% to 1%. What informed this decline, and what has NRF done to attract people with disabilities that continue to have serious challenges of funding for their studies?

As people with disabilities are being advocated for, the general expectation would be that they would be funded over and above the age of 35 years, given their general limitations in society. How does the new framework take cognisant of that fact?

Lastly, she noted that the presentation had no indication of people dropping out, whether NRF has had challenges on students dropping out, what follows the process and what informs the dropouts.

On the average, in as far as completing the qualifications, the presented average outlined in the presentation is 40% and 30%. What informed this average in terms of completing studies in record time? What will the NRF do to ensure that the completion of studies is done within record time?

Ms Tarabella-Marchesi asked if NRF would approach the South African Revenue Services (SARS) regarding students who have found work and are currently employed after graduation from university. There is the Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) that prevents the sharing of information, and one would assume that the information they would be looking for from SARS is about the employment details of the graduate. Would the POPI Act prevent NRF from obtaining that information? Is the NRF encouraging students to study STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics)?

The Chairperson thanked the Members for their comments and questions. She said that the Committee must commend the DSI and the NRF, noting that the new Postgraduate Student Funding Policy is underpinned by the principles of equity, opportunities, representation, prioritisation, race, gender, nationality and disability. What is even more progressive is the fact that financial need and financially-deserving students are being supported. “We think that the funding policy of the Department in terms of its intention on the transformation framework until we reach a stage where we can have an alternative conversation”, she added.

Responses

Department of Science and Innovation

Dr Phil Mjwara, Director-General, DSI, responded to the point made by Ms Tarabella-Marchesi on transmitting this information to the Minister; he assured her that the outcomes of this discussion will be shared with the Minister.

Secondly, on the engagement between the Department and National Treasury and the NRF: as Members would know that, in the current budget cycle, the NRF and the DSI has been informed by Treasury that there are no new sources of funding. If the Department wants to fund new projects or programmes, it needs to reprioritise within the allocated funding envelope. There is no new money, and the changes that are being discussed and proposed today are, at large, only going to be able to happen in the next financial year. “However, we have agreed with Treasury that the Minister, with Minister of Finance, will have a bilateral to discuss and find a different avenue on how to make approach postgraduate funding in South Africa differently – seen as an investment, rather than as an expense. Last week, there was an agreement that the two Ministers would meet and discuss that.

Thirdly, there is a ministerial task team that is looking at the totality of the funding that government needs to fully understand and appreciate for both undergraduate and postgraduate funding. This is led by colleagues from DHET, and once that model has been completed, the Committee will have a view of the totality of the funding needed, based on the demand of the students.

On the proposal on the centralisation of funding under one institution, he said that this is a good suggestion and it can be proposed through the inter-ministerial committee on science and innovation, on how it can work, and perhaps agree on a principle. Once this has been done the Department can report back to the Committee on the outcome of that discussion.

Concerning the issue around the ministerial guidelines and the transformation framework, he explained that these are two different things. The guidelines mainly speak to the demographics and the equity or trying to achieve equity within the funding for postgraduate students. The transformation framework goes beyond that – it looks at how to ensure that the beneficiaries of research that get funded by government are cooperatives that can benefit from the research that done by the Department. The framework is more encompassing, and the Department will be coming to the Committee to report back on it.

On the clearance of student debt, Dr Mjwara said that this is a matter that can be taken up to the political leadership, as well some of the comments and suggestions made by Members.

National Research Foundation

Dr Fulufhelo Nelwamondo, Chief Executive Officer, NRF, said that the bigger issue is around the limitation of funding. The NRF does not have enough resources to be where it needs to be. If the Foundation did not have this limitation, barriers that it had set, such as age limits, would probably not exist. On one element, if one considers one of the studies, like looking at the bulk of graduates and at what age are they in, one would see that a significant number of them fall between the 21-25 age group. Even the groups that are older – within the retirement ages, the NRF cannot fund all of them. Not so long ago, he dealt with a case of a 60-year-old. On the basis of limit, one would ask themselves if it would be wise to invest on a 60-year-old or invest on a 22- or 25-year-old, who might have so much more to offer. There is an issue of prioritisation that must be taken into consideration.

Secondly, on people living with disabilities, he said that the DSI approach is data drive. The Foundation had a target of five percent for a long time, but when it looked at the number of applicants who qualified under that category, it has not even reached one percent of those people. When the entity does this work with the universities through the disability units, it expects that those who qualify to apply and must be encouraged by their institutions to do so. The NRF has never crossed even the one-percent gap. Therefore, instead of having that target at five percent, it decided to drop it based on the data that it had.

On the studies about the expensive courses, the NRF can provide this information to the Committee in detail by submitting it in written form.

Dr Phethiwe Matutu, Group Executive: Strategy Planning and Partnerships, NRF, responded to questions about the transformation network of the NRF. This was approved by the Board in 2017, and it is a complete document. Perhaps, what was referred to is the transformation network of the DSI. The NRF one has four components where it focuses on the transformation of researcher components that start at the pipeline level – from the postgraduate level. The postgraduate framework would be a component that is trying to implement the transformation framework, because the Foundation is trying to transform the researcher cohort. The entity has just completed the Leading Researchers and Scholars Programme, which also meant transforming the researcher cohort – looking at top achievers between the researchers.

On the transformation of the research enterprise, he indicated that the Foundation is busy with the research agenda and also busy with its framework for research impact, which attempts to transform our research enterprise. There is a component on transforming our science and society; the Foundation is busy with engaged research, which is assisting on this.

Dr Gansen Pillay, NRF Deputy CEO, replied to say that what was presented today is the culmination of a number of years of deep thinking and hard work. He said that the entity has come up a strategy and a policy that transforms the postgraduate cohort, but there are challenges. The challenges in implementation have been dealt, but the entity has only been able to do so much due to the limited resources. Resources would be a quick answer – the numbers are largely students from designated groups, which are black and female students. If the entity had the resources, the postgraduate cohort would transform overnight.

The centralisation of postgraduate student funding has come up in many reviews. The entity is of the view that, if the funding from all the Departments can be placed on one research & development (R&D) funding, it would go a long way in getting into the 1.5% of spending on R&D as a percentage of the GDP. NRF hopes that the idea to centralise student funding will gain traction.

He welcomed the suggestion to encourage and assist students on enhancing academic performance.

The matter of age limits, disability and ratios that Members have shared: it has been carefully thought through and documented with evidence, and it has been shared with the stakeholder community within the NSI, Higher education institution, and the National Science Council.

On the disability question, he explained that, in the last decade, the NRF has a target of four percent but has struggled to reach one percent. However, the entity still has its eyes on the radar, but one of the challenges that it found is that how disability is established differs among the institution. The question remains how we can define it.

On the matter of the dropouts, he explained that the students that are funded by the NRF generally have a higher and greater rate of success than students in general, funded through the system. The Foundation has provided extension support to students that have not been able to complete their postgraduate qualifications within record time. For example, a number of Masters and PhD students had not been able to complete their qualifications within the set period since the Covid-19 outbreak. The DSI made available R9 million to offer that extension support to those students.

As for excellence and transformation, the Foundation can achieve it as it is pursuing transformation. The Foundation can transform the system and still maintain excellence. The reality is that, given the constrained fiscus, the entity has to make difficult choices, and some of those choices include what it can stop doing.

Dr Maharaj added a few comments, starting with responding to the question that related to the proportion of higher achievers versus financially needy. She explained that the way the implementation of the policy is designed is to determine whether or not a student falls into that financially needy category; the Foundation is following DHET and NSF in terms of where to draw the line of ‘financially needy’. At this stage, the Foundation is not setting targets, but the primary objective is to aid and fund financially needy students at full cost of study. The entity does not have the funds to fund all students at the full cost of study. Already, the Foundation has a had great reduction in the number of students that it is funding, but with the exception of the partial cost of study PhD students, all other students are eligible for a greater of bursary than what they would have gotten in the past. They are also able to top up that funding. In addition, students are allowed to still continue to undertake some tutoring and demonstrating work for up to 12 hours a week, for example. This enables them to gain some experience, beside the extra money.

With regards to an expensive course, the Foundation needs to set some capping guidelines. All NRF funded students enter into an agreement and sign a condition of grant, which requires them to complete the degree within one year of the end of the funding. They also qualify for extension funding. The NRF does encourage students to finish within the required minimum period.

For many years, the NRF has been faced with the challenge of the grant holders claiming that they are unable to find black and female students, yet the Fund has a large pool of those students that meet the academic criteria and whom the Foundation is able to fund. So, having a central application process allows the Foundation to see what the pool of the students is, and it also enables the Foundation to have a transparent and auditable process for determining financial need. A few years ago, the Auditor-General (AG) challenged the NRF because it did not require honourable students to apply to the Foundation directly, but would apply at the university and the university would nominate the students to be funded to the NRF. The Foundation has to put into place an online application process where all honours students who want to be considered for NRF funding have to apply to the NRF online system, and then the universities can select the students. “We previously had this with the AG, having to challenge for not being able to present a pool of all the honours applicants. With the new system, we can now provide that pool with for the Masters and Doctoral qualifications”, she said.

“We have been following the ministerial guidelines set by the DSI in consultation with the NRF. The target for 2013 guidelines for South African citizens and permanent residence was set at 87% and this 87% was, to a large extent, determined by the fact that there was already an agreement to fund 5% of students from the SADC region. It also took into account that there was a higher proportion of international students being funded, and it allowed for a period in which the number of South African students that could be funded to increase”, she explained.

The decision to increase the proportion that proportion of South African citizens and permanent residences to 95% is something that the NRF board felt very strongly about. The data that has not presented here shows that, while the entity is making excellent progress in graduating the NDP (National Development Plan) targets for graduating 5 000 PhD per annum, the entity has now reached a point where there are more black PhD graduates than white PhD graduates; a large proportion of the back PhD graduate are not South African. “By directing more of this limited funding we have towards South African students, we want to increase the proportion of black South African PhD graduates”, she added.

Regarding the 90% for black, she said that it aligns with the demographic targets in the country. The entity has retained the 55% women, because there are fewer women at higher postgraduate levels. They also know that, in the public and private sector, there are fewer women in most senior ranks.

She agreed that there is a lot of work that still needs to be done regarding people living with disabilities. At the moment, the Foundation is limited by the small proportion of graduates with disabilities and the small proportion applying to the NRF. The Foundation has noted the DHET’s framework that was developed related to the management of persons with disabilities at the institutions. “We will work closely with DHET in terms of their requirements for the institutions to create an enabling environment for students with disability”, she added.

Mr Pillay said that one of the areas raised was the POPI Act; it was quite a challenge to broker partnership with SARS. SARS is aware of the POPI Act, and the NRF will not be getting all the information, but it is a conversation that is still taking place. The information would largely be about where they end up for employment, and in which sector, etc.

Mr Nelwamondo said that the challenge with the split of funding for NRF is that it is a limited pool. “We also have an element of maintaining the national facilities of NRF. Once we have money, some of the points that were raised today may not be raised again”, he added.

SAUS

Mr Ndzoyiya said that it seems there is consensus on the crisis of postgraduate funding. The union is not pleased with the fact that the Minister of Finance said that there will be no new allocation; they have to work with what they have in the sector. “Ultimately, this is where you see the whole thing of age limits as a strategy; we have seen it as an element of reducing the number of students that can be funded”, he added.

He was concerned with the comment that the target for proper with disabilities has been reduced. He reckoned that there should be investment into the success of those students. “We need to encourage and invest more in their studies so we can meet the 5% target”, he added.

He said that the SAUS needs to work around part of the policy shift to deal expansion of funded students in postgraduate studies, and consider second qualifications to fund. The union needs to have a workshop where it will look at possible ways to source more funding for postgraduate funding. If the union is to reach the targets by the NDP, it would need to change the strategy. There must also be a discussion with some SETAs, for them to assist in funding unemployed students. Last year, there was a SETA that injected R5 million to SAUS fund students of construction.

The Chairperson thanked the delegation for the engagement and the Members for their participation.

 

The meeting was adjourned.

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