Officials from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) admitted in Parliament today that there are still nearly 75 000 students who have been granted funding for 2018, but have still not received their funding. This leaves thousands of students out in the cold, with no clarity or funding for their studies and living costs.
While Universities countrywide are gearing up for a national protest on NSFAS problems, with five Universities already on strike or experiencing protests, the Higher Education Portfolio Committee has taken the initiative in getting to the bottom of the NSFAS saga. Unconvinced by the presentations it receives from NSFAS itself, the Committee has run its own questionnaire-based survey on the actual situation in Universities and Colleges whose students are meant to be funded by NSFAS.
Very serious dysfunction was revealed. The Parliamentary questionnaire found that at least R600m worth of funding was still outstanding from 2017, that many 2017 students were not migrated to the 2018 year because of late 2017 payments, that the IT system at the heart of the NSFAS was barely adequate to the task, that institutions had themselves taken on the responsibility of funding students left without money, risking their own resources, and that students ineligible for funding had in fact been funded in numerous cases because of inaccurate information. Multiple other problems emerged.
Very few of the students who applied for NSFAS after the announcement of free higher education have actually been funded yet and it was these students who were struggling with food and accommodation. Universities and Colleges complained that the communication from NSFAS was poor and timelines non-existent, while the integration of data was very slow and poor.
Officials have managed to catch up on funding of many of the students left high and dry earlier in the year but have little grounds for satisfaction on this score since it is already halfway through August, and the academic year ends in twelve weeks or so.
The Chief Executive conceded that NSFAS is grossly understaffed, its last staff establishment having been decided in 2013, and that staff seconded to boost the system last year have now all left, reducing capacity to a minimal number once more. As a result, even this late in the year, there are still nearly 75 000 students who have been granted funding for 2018, but have not received their funding. This leaves thousands of students out in the cold, with no clarity or funding for their studies and living costs.
NSFAS has previously pointed out that there are many students who have not signed loan agreements, and that higher education institutions have not sent through registration data. However, it is clear that the dysfunction within NSFAS and the inadequacy of its IT systems also play a major part in these failures. For example, figures provided today showed that NSFAS had in fact received registration data for over 13 000 of those not paid, but failed to “link” them with applicants.
Shockingly, another 22 800 students awarded funding for the 2017 academic year also did not have agreements generated, despite registering successfully. This is an abject failure of NSFAS administration.
When former NSFAS Chairperson, Sizwe Nxasana resigned last week, he stated that the reason for the disarray at the institution was the surprise announcement on free higher education by former President Jacob Zuma, without any consultation, leaving NSFAS unable to cope with the massive influx of student applications.
It has taken the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Naledi Pandor, eight months into the academic year to admit this. Her department has now shut down applications for 2019, causing considerable concern amongst students and their families.
There are in fact two people squarely to blame for this situation: former President Jacob Zuma for making a desperate political promise of free higher education in December last year, and President Cyril Ramaphosa for not having the insight to realise that it was essential to postpone the implementation until the bureaucracy could be made ready, or the guts to actually announce a postponement. The collapse of NSFAS processes shows that far more planning and far greater investment in the bureaucracy was needed before expanding funding and changing its form, but weak leadership from the President rushed the implementation.
Higher education is vital for securing lasting employment. Compromising the futures of students only compromises the future of our economy.
As long as the ANC government continues to break promises, young South Africans will struggle to find jobs. Nothing will change as long as the failing ANC continues to place politics before the lives of students and their families