Student fund scheme 'on track' despite hiccups
Providing a “status report” on the roll-out of the new student-centred funding model, National Student Financial Aid Scheme, or NSFAS, Board Chairperson Sizwe Nxasana told media at a briefing on 19 February – two days after applications for the last round of funding closed and two months into the academic year – that he expects a “significant” increase in the number of college students approved.
“The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, has confirmed that the NSFAS funding budget for 2017 will be R15 billion. From this budget, we expect to fund well over [the] 405,000 students who were funded in 2016 at both universities and TVET [technical and vocational education and training] colleges,” he said.
Out of the applications received NSFAS had so far approved a total of 105,135 new students and had confirmed funding for 204,653 returning students, bringing the total number of students funded to 309,788.
Out of a total 161,938 applications received, 53,043 were unsuccessful applications while 3,760 were still being reviewed.
Extended application periods
Among the improvements introduced, Nxasana said the scheme had widened the applications period and appeals time for unsuccessful applicants. As a result the scheme expected to add more than 100,000 students to the 309,788 students already funded.
According to Nxasana, the student-centred model allowed for the establishment of direct relationship with NSFAS students from the time they enter higher education until post-graduation.
The overhaul of the scheme comes in the wake of widespread student unhappiness over access to universities and colleges that has manifested in chronic student protests.
While the spotlight over the past 16 months has mainly been on universities, the TVET student body has also registered its dissatisfaction. These complaints, which have been acknowledged as “very valid” by Minister Nzimande, relate largely to insufficient funding, late payment of allowances for housing and transport, poor infrastructural development and the failure of the sector to release student results and certificates.
Highlighting the measures taken to improve the process of funding and registration for 2017, Nxasana said NSFAS had in a “proactive” move in January released 15%, amounting to R1.3 billion, for upfront payments to each university and TVET college.
This had enabled universities and TVET colleges to register students without them having to pay upfront registration fees, and provide them with allowances to meet needs such as accommodation.
He said all university students who were funded by NSFAS in 2016 and had passed at least 50% of their modules would be automatically funded this year after signing their 2016 loan agreement forms.
TVET college students who were funded by NSFAS in 2016 had to meet the minimum academic progression rules set by the Department of Higher Education and Training to receive continued NSFAS funding.
All new-entry students who had applied to NSFAS and came from households who depended on South African Social Security Agency grants and had been offered a space in a university or TVET college would be funded by NSFAS, he said.
Other students who did not meet the set requirements would be evaluated using the normal NSFAS financial means test and academic criteria.
Nxasana acknowledged hiccups in the system.
“We do realise that our system did not go smoothly in all areas, and would like to apologise to all students who have been inconvenienced in one way or another at their respective institutions,” said Nxasana.
At the end of last month, the South African Further Education and Training Student Association provisionally called off its nationwide shutdown of the country’s 265 TVET campuses after a meeting with Nzimande.
According to a local news report, the minister agreed to keep intakes of students to the previous 664,748, instead of the proposed 421,648 for 2017.
At Walter Sisulu University, student unrest this month was linked to NSFAS delays in processing students’ applications.
The issue was similar at Mpumalanga’s Ehlanzeni TVET College, Barberton Campus, where students recently protested over delays in approval for funding.
The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University also witnessed student unrest as a result of concerns that over 1,000 rooms reserved for NSFAS students, still awaiting approval, would be given to other students.
Tshwane University of Technology students took to the streets over accommodation issues related to NSFAS grants, while students at the University of Pretoria complained about a lack of accommodation.
While visiting Umgungundlovu TVET College in Pietermaritzburg last week, Nzimande assured NSFAS-funded students who owed money they would be allowed to register.
“The immediate short-term demand is… how to resolve 2017 student fees. There is no owing NSFAS student who will not go back to a college or university; government will cover those costs,” he was quoted by News24 as saying.
At the briefing Nxasana said while NSFAS had noted various reports on student protests over accommodation for NSFAS-funded students, the universities and TVET colleges themselves were tasked with accrediting private accommodation providers.
NSFAS would only register private accommodation providers as merchants for the universities and TVET colleges already on their disbursement system, he said.
For universities and TVET colleges not on the system, NSFAS pays the universities and TVET colleges who then settle with providers of private accommodation.
“It is important to note that NSFAS does not make decisions on which students qualify for private accommodation allowances; neither does NSFAS have any relationship with private accommodation providers,” he said.