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Higher Education Student funding models and the pursuit of equity in post- apartheid South Africa

Themes 2 and 3

Overview of Project Scope

Post-apartheid South Africa has the expectation that HE will contribute to reducing the inter- generational cycle of poverty as well as redress the socio-economic legacy of colonialism and apartheid that continues to polarise South Africa into one of the most unequal nations in the world. Despite the strong global and national-level policy commitments to achieving equitable HE outcomes, perennial disparities in patterns of access, experience and attainment continue to

undermine the faith of many in the transformative potential of HE. The impact of social class, ethnic and gender-based inequalities in students’ higher education aspirations, the type of university and field of study accessed, institutional experiences and their odds of completion persist.

This research aims to investigate how black working-class students’ (and the perceived missing middle) journeys to, experiences and outcomes in South African higher education are shaped by different student funding models/pathways (such as NSFAS grants, external bursaries and student loans). The research also seeks to explore whether we are transforming or reproducing inequalities, through an analysis of the extent of race, class, gender and spatial disparities.

Research questions

  • In what ways is South Africa’s recently introduced fee-free higher education funding policy contributing to the redress and/or reproduction of inequality in patterns of access and success in HE and what are the new typologies of inequality?
  • How can policymakers tasked with HE’s transformative agenda achieve more equitable and less reproductive educational outcomes?

Our interest in these questions is inspired by what we perceive to be gaps, sore points and potential unintended consequences of the South African government’s fee-free higher education funding policy for poor and working-class students. The questions are explored in a manner that contributes to ongoing debates on equitable and sustainable ways of funding students in higher education, particularly in contexts with limited resources and competing fiscal priorities.


The research approach includes a documentary review of SA’s HE funding policy over the 28 years of the democratic dispensation; and use of a qualitative methodology to foreground the voices of the specific stakeholders (students, student leaders, management, academic and support staff) at five case study universities.

The research contributions include: an empirical investigation into reimagining HE in (de)colonial contexts; recommendations on policy and practice; and suggested models of higher education funding models to ensure its future sustainability in an enabling environment for teaching and learning.

Progress and Research outputs to date

  • A comprehensive literature review has been completed and feedback has been received from SARChI Chair colleagues during the SARCHI Chair Seminar prior to the launch.
  • A Special Issue with the South African Journal of Higher Education in progress. A call for papers has closed, with an adequate number of papers received and the guest editors (Prof Gerald Ouma

University of Pretoria (UP), Prof Moses Oketch UCL, University of London, Prof Shireen Motala and Dr Mukovhe Masutha) have received most of the manuscripts from the authors.

  • Two book chapters are in press, one journal article has been accepted and three conference presentations have been made.

Knowledge contribution

The project makes a contribution to the theme of equity, access and success in undergraduate education with a decolonial approach being an important focus. The project thus makes an important contribution to research on diverse just and equitable student funding models while exploring theoretical and practical means of freeing higher education in the context of the struggle for just, distributive and reparative justice in education and society.

Current activity: data collection

Documentary review of policy documents between 1994-2022; collation of statistical analysis in progress; overseeing the editorial process for the Special issue for the South African Journal of Higher Education.

Research team: Mukovhe Masutha (research coordinator), Prof Shireen Motala, Dr Gerald Ouma Wangenge (University of Pretoria ), Moses Oketch (University of London), Prof Joel Samoff (Stanford University).

Time frame: 2021-2023

Output: In progress are the following: one book publication and three journal articles; one doctoral student (Albert Garcer)