‘Jobs, jobs and jobs are the dividing line in many families between a decent life and a wretched existence. They are, to many, the difference between self-esteem and helplessness.’ Nelson Mandela.
The Minister of Higher Education and Training deserves an accolade for ensuring that students who qualified for graduation but could not because of outstanding fees to tertiary institutions who were beneficiaries of NSFAS are given further loans to enable them to receive their certificates. Surely this is appears a noble thing to do until one examines it closely to realise that it’s not the paper called certificate the critical thing in a life to a graduate but a job. The Minister, the government and society should be concerned more about whether these graduates have jobs. Further the concern should be increasing debt that these graduates accumulate while out of employment. The other issue that needs to concern all is whether the issue of NSFAS is feasible if many graduates are unable to pay back the loans because of joblessness. Lastly society at large should think hard about the issue of lack of skills when hundreds if not thousands of graduates idle in townships, when there is a high vacancy rate in municipalities and the public sector which stifles service delivery when these graduates are roaming the streets.
While the idea of extending further loans to NSFAS beneficiaries to receive their degrees and diplomas, the withholding of these certificates was not the only or the most cause of these graduates’ failure to enter formal employment as these institutions and SAQA through its National Learner Record Database could and can confirm the completion of studies by any learner. At the time the minister announced this initiative it was said that this will allow these graduates to enter the labour market, in other words the withholding of certificates was seen as the major stumbling block to entry into formal employment. The truth is that qualification verification was positive from my former university while I owed the institution and therefore never hampered my efforts to get employment. If this was not a problem to me it means it was not a major hindrance to many other graduates. If this is the case, it means the thinking that the withholding of certificates was the stumbling block to entry into the job market was flawed. The reason of failure to get employment by beneficiaries of NSFAS should therefore have another explanation other than the absence of certificates. The department and all other concerned citizens have to do further research to find out the reasons why so many graduates, especially NSFAS graduates are out of employment and what needs to be done by society to get in employment and ensure the sustainability of NSFAS continue sponsoring students as beneficiaries pay back loans in time. Failure to pay back loans will mean the scheme will for a long time be relying on the treasury to keep its doors open. NSFAS needs to be wined from treasury and fund its own activities from its own coffers as past students pay back loans.
Since the thinking behind bailing –out these students was in itself flawed what then are its other implications on the life of these graduates? Firstly it should be pointed out these students are debt ridden, owing the scheme huge amounts of money as the scheme charges interest on the loans irrespective of whether the beneficiary is in employment or not. This means that the longer the student stays out of employment the bigger the debt becomes, trapping such a student in debt that will take a long time to clear. This said debt relief fund comes as a loan with interest that kicks in the day one signs on the dotted line thereby increasing the debt these students would have to live with for a long time. The system works exactly like all modern financial institutions, giving you more loans even if you are unable to meet the existing debt’s repayment. If these students were nations there is no doubt that strict austerity measures would be imposed on them to ensure they reduce expenditure as well as recoup monies through user-pay methods which have brought much suffering as people’s lifestyles have to change for the worse. Since these students are not nation states the debt (NSFAS loans) will trap them in debt and make their life a tough existence. There are ways that the Minister could have employed if he was genuinely concerned about the plight of these graduates which could really be called ‘relief’. One way was and is still the provision of employment to such graduates; provision of such opportunities has not to always result in the ballooning of the state’s salary budget.
In one open letter I wrote to the Minister was to examine the role the SOEs could play in the employment of NSFAS graduates who cannot be absorbed by the private sector. This could be done within a given framework with the sole purpose of imparting skills to such graduates before letting them seek employment in the private sector on their own. Such policies will be directed at internships, apprenticeship and learnerships within SOEs for a specified timeframe. Such a mechanism could be of much assistance in imparting critical skills that universities are perceived as not imparting as well as affording these graduates to start paying back the loans thereby ensuring the continued sustainability of the NSFAS. There are many SOEs which have many vacancies that go years without being filled while there are graduates who can be trained, mentored and coached to be valuable human resources.
These SOEs can churn out many skills that the country greatly needs such as artisans, nurses, doctors, office support staff and may other professions. The government’s NSFAS is a laudable initiative but when its graduates remain outside of the formal labour market this will threaten its continued existence which in turn will be a blow to the desire to allow all qualifying students to get tertiary education. If NSFAS proves a burden to the treasury and is closed this would mean the doors of education will be closed for children of the poor, the disadvantaged.
The Minister should consider contacting his colleague at the Department of Public Enterprises with this idea and if promising table a motion before the cabinet as measure of fighting graduate unemployment in the country. For the sake of the continued existence of NSFAS and its worthwhile function, for the sake of these graduates who are trapped in debt by the desire to get an education and for the sake of society that needs educated people in employment the government should consider graduate unemployment a national crisis. The continued unemployment of NSFAS graduates does not augur well for the country, in other words its money thrown down a bottomless pit, raising many souls’ hopes and then dashing them, discouraging the young from pursuing education, wasted human resources; it’s a scar on the human conscience of society. Who will blame these graduates if armed with their certificates leave our shores in pursuit of further education opportunities abroad and never coming back? NSFAS will be robbed of monies it needs, the country will lose valuable human resources, families will lose potential bread winners and other will be broken in the process.
I urge the Minister to really seriously look at the continued unemployment of NSFAS graduates who seem to be condemned to forever live in despair and hopelessness. To make matters worse is that these graduates are from disadvantaged backgrounds whose families’ only hope was the entry into higher education institutions of these children. This means instead of using education to break the bondages of deprivation and poverty they find themselves immersed in further financial problems, dejection and poverty. NSFAS was meant to allow students from poor families to access higher education and break the chains of poverty but when these graduates cannot find jobs that mission is a failure.
Failure to extend real debt relief to these graduates would be condemning them to a wretched life by destroying their self-esteem and condemning them to a life of helplessness as the former president Nelson Mandela alluded to in his June 1996. That will be a shame to the nation.
Fikile Nkosana Dube is a UCT graduate, a NSFAS beneficiary