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#FeesMustFall, higher education and the cycle of poverty

TARYN COOP, a teacher and Masters student in International and Comparative Education, describes the long journey four of her matric students took to get into university, and the impact that tertiary education can have on uplifting communities. 

Taryn Coop facebook I worked as a teacher in a rural school in Mpumalanga for two years. The matrics and I worked hard. We had a goal. At the end of 2013, four matrics passed with the marks required to get into university. I had applied for them and we had gathered up the application fees. We could not afford to apply for res. They were accepted into university – three to study teaching, one to study social work.

Next step: applying for loans from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). NSFAS requires mounds of paperwork. Not all the paperwork was available – in some communities, a system of keeping documents and files is not prioritised. Some grannies cannot write and some fathers have disappeared and some siblings have been split up from a young age and have lost track of parents’ death certificates along the way. Lack of paperwork means that matriculants will not succeed in receiving loans as they cannot prove that they are “poor enough”. So we worked very hard to get absolutely every detail we could to prove that the loans were needed. We signed affidavits, we went to the NSFAS offices repeatedly (sitting on the floor in the way until someone would listen) and phoned them relentlessly. Loans were eventually granted.

Next step: res. University accommodation was full. We had to look at the other student res in the area. Loans do not pay out before the res deposit is required. I did not have the money to pay large deposits for the four matriculants. But I had a friend who could and was kind enough to do so. We then had to make upfront payments for the res shortfall that NSFAS does not cover. [It was the] same situation, a friend of mine was able to cover it.

Next step: resources. Another friend donated an old computer for the four to share to learn how to type in the privacy of their bedroom (the stigma attached to students who have never touched a computer before when arriving at university is horrific). Stationery was donated to us.

Overall this was a long, frustrating and exhausting experience.

Four matriculants, receiving a less than adequate primary and high school education, worked extremely hard to transcend their situations. With a tertiary education, they will go back to their community, having received the knowledge, skills and qualifications to further transform education in their former primary and high schools – as teachers and social workers. This is the start of a sustainable cycle of upliftment and empowerment through education.

But what if I had not been there to use my knowledge of the university system to ensure loans and accommodation were secured? What if my friend was not willing or able to fund the deposits and shortfalls that NSFAS does not cover? What if they did not have access to basic resources that all students need? They would have worked for 12 years, received university entrance, and would not have been given the chance to attend. This is not a story to make myself out to be some kind of hero to four rural children. This is a story to highlight injustice and to give myself a second chance to use my voice differently.

Perhaps when I was trying to find a way to ensure that my four matriculants received their rightful places in university, I should not have been fighting the cause for four but rather for every student that is and is to come. Perhaps instead of doing everything in my power to work within the boundaries of existing systems, I should have been using my voice to try to overthrow the system. My focus was on four beautiful, intelligent children from rural Mpumalanga. If I was in that same situation now, my focus would be on every beautiful, intelligent child of South Africa.

– This post originally appeared on Facebook.
– Featured image by Nathi Ngubane

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