Can an average South African afford an academic career?

Every time Stats SA releases the country’s economic statistics, it is always a harsh reminder of how bad and unequal our economy is. A shocking statistic found by the Pietermaritzburg Economic Justice & Dignity Group shows that 55.5% of our population lives below the upper-bound poverty line, which is currently at R1,227 per person per month. The discussions sparked by the 2020 first-quarter stats made me reflect on how finances are one of the leading systematic barriers to entry in the academic field.

I have had a first-hand experience of how finances could lead to choosing a different career path, even when one is a passionate academic.

In the final year of my MSc, I was faced with a financial dilemma; my mother was unemployed and desperately needed to purchase a bigger house that could accommodate our family. Being the eldest daughter, I really wanted to help her. Yes, I had a scholarship, but banks would never consider giving me a housing bond. As passionate as I was about science, my upbringing propelled me to assist my mother. My job applications were successful, and hence I was employed. This would have been the end of my academic career; fortunately, my mother secured a job, which paid enough for her to be able to buy a house. As a result, I was able to resign and continue with my studies. Unfortunately, most people never make it back to academia. 

I was also fortunate to receive a scholarship for my PhD studies, meaning that I would be able to assist at home financially. However, some of my colleagues are self-funded; this is another harsh finance reality. Most of these colleagues are at an age where families expect them to contribute financially, or they have families to look after. Ultimately, they have to rely on the income from tutoring, teaching and lab assistances. The time consumed on preparation and teaching compromises the quality of their research while the privileged students are able to solely focus on their research.

A major highlight from the Black lives matter movement conversations is how the prevalent inequalities are deeply rooted in the systems. The Department of Science and Innovation’s White Paper lists various strategies on how the department plans to transform the field of science, but will their approaches be successful? The National Research Foundation (NRF) has played a significant role in diversifying the post-graduate space; currently, the bulk of their scholarships are received by learners coming from previously disadvantaged backgrounds. But does their funding model suit our economic climate?

The truth for this generation is that most students from disadvantaged backgrounds are the first to attend university. Families sacrifice a lot with the hope that an educated child is destined to improve their living conditions. This means that as soon as the student graduates, there is a financial expectation. Many label this as ‘black tax’ but I believe that the spirit of ubuntu that is engraved in our upbringing drives us to lift others as we rise. Unfortunately, current funding models do not cater for such students.

My ideal funding model would be one where the student signs an ‘employment’ contract which is recognised by South African financial institutions. The universities could also offer tutoring or lab assistance posts with an extended timeframe; not the usual annual contracts. This would allow post-graduate students to carry out similar responsibilities as peers in work environments. The major game-changer, of course, would be if financial institutions realistically catered for all the different economy populations. Countries like Colombia have been leading in the global financial inclusion rankings as their finance sector is able to equally cater for people at various income levels. A study showed that these were the main drivers for financial inclusion:  the government developed financial inclusion indicators and reports, the innovative establishment of bank access points, and custom-made products aimed at different segments of the population with a special focus on low-income individuals.

Transformation in the academic sphere is non-negotiable. However, it has to be more than just diversifying on the surface. True transformation is one that will change the current systems that are major barriers to entry. These changes would enable students to make career decisions that are based on passion and not biased by financial circumstances.

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