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Firing NSFAS board is papering over the cracks

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National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) CEO Andile Nongogo was fired in October 2023 amid a R47-billion payments scandal, yet no action has yet been taken against him, the writer says. – Picture: ANA

By Edwin Naidu

The troubles of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which was established to provide deserving students with financial support, need an intervention greater than the blunt solutions offered by Dr Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, science and innovation.

His decision to scrap the NSFAS board and place it under administration to address the troubles that have plagued the funding agency is like putting a plaster over a boil.

None of the critical problems have been addressed decisively. Those allegedly culpable for the issues seem to have escaped without sanction or criticism from the minister.

At least, Nzimande concedes that there is a problem following the NSFAS’s recurring non-payment of student allowances. The minister has instructed the scheme to immediately establish a dedicated task team to visit all the Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges and universities where students were experiencing severe NSFAS-related problems.

Another task team? Many of the reports from previous task teams are gathering dust. One concerns governance by council members of tertiary institutions, yet something has yet to happen with the recommendations. What about the fat-cat salaries of vice-chancellors? Nothing has been done about that, either.

Thirty years of democracy should have seen South Africa celebrating the NSFAS as one of the proud moments in our history. Hundreds of thousands have benefited from Africa’s largest student financial aid scheme. What began as the Tertiary Education Fund of South Africa, funding 7,000 students with a budget of almost R21 million mushroomed into the NSFAS, which funded 764,421 students last year and disbursed R46 billion to universities and TVET colleges.

Nzimande’s move last Sunday to remove the board has been widely welcomed. However, it does not address the corruption claims that hover over the NSFAS.

Where is the action against the former chief executive Andile Nongogo? The board chairperson, Ernest Khosa, was allowed to resign without clearing his name against the allegations based on recordings involving him.

Ernest Khosa, chairperson of NSFAS has resigned. Outa released tender irregularities and dubious service provider appointments showing that Khosa and his colleagues made up a toothless board, the writer says. – Picture: Thobile Mathonsi / ANA

It begs the question of whether there is merit in the allegations that the rot goes up to the minister. Why else would he accept Khosa’s resignation without a whimper?

Wayne Duvenage, chairperson of the anti-corruption advocacy body, Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), says the minister’s decision to scrap the NSFAS board was probably a good thing because the board did not do enough to address the many problems at the NSFAS. “They acted very late and even denounced Outa’s earlier claims,” he said.

Duvenage said Khosa was implicated in the recordings released earlier in the year. Yet the board did nothing. Their inaction over NSFAS’s failures on student funding problems and their inaction after Outa released tender irregularities and dubious service provider appointments show that Khosa and his colleagues made up a toothless board.

But Khosa and colleagues are leaving to sit on boards elsewhere. The corruption claims and alleged links to their patron must be probed. Accountability should be present even if the minister disregards it.

Duvenage was hopeful that placing the scheme under administration with a trustworthy and competent government official such as Freeman Nomvalo would be beneficial; however, he cautioned that the administration route had been tried before.

“So, we believe the issue is that one must focus on higher up the chain, and here we look toward the minister, Blade Nzimande. Why does this problem of gross dysfunctional outcomes and the need for administration at NSFAS have to happen repeatedly? After all, the minister is the one who appointed these boards.”

But Nzimande took little to no meaningful action to call the NSFAS accounting officers and board to account. Instead, following many months of maladministration and reports from civil society, the chairperson was allowed to resign.

“Any right-minded minister serious about excellent service delivery, high performance, and ensuring the lowest-cost solutions are brought to the people would have removed Nongogo and Khosa a long time ago,” Duvenage said.

“Mr Nzimande does not have such a mindset. He tolerates poor performance from the people he places into these positions.”

Duvenage said the same arrogant and dysfunctional leadership was meted out at the sector education training authorities, which fell within his ambit and under the watch of other chairpersons placed at the helm of Seta boards by the minister.

He said the Insurance Seta (Inseta) was one example of an organisation and its board defying two court orders. “This is simply outrageous, and yet the minister remains silent.

“We believe the minister is the faulty cog in the wheel here, and the president should recall him and conduct an extensive investigation into his conduct and lifestyle. The minister has not carried out his threat to sue us as yet. We are waiting for him to do so.”

Nzimande’s canning of the board may suggest he is deflecting from the real challenges, which, as Outa suggests, could involve him. However, it does not address the NSFAS problem.

A solution could be found in a report commissioned by Professor Sibusiso Bengu, the country’s first minister of education in democratic South Africa.

In 1996, the National Commission on Higher Education under the leadership of Professor Jairam Reddy, recommended a well thought-out funding model for students in tertiary education.

Under the model, students who could afford university fees were not to be funded; a second category, which comprised most of the incoming black students, previously denied university education and mostly from poor backgrounds, was to be given bursaries; and a third category in the middle, who could afford partial fees, was to be given loans to be repaid on graduation and entering the world of work.

Reddy said the model worked well for a few years, although the loan repayment rate was meagre. But the model was turned on its head during the Zuma presidency, and the #FeesMustFall protest campaign. Most students expected to be fully funded, and despite a considerable increase in NSFAS funding, that was simply unaffordable.

Initially, the funds were transferred to universities and dispersed in terms of their student requirements. Then, at some point, the dispersing of NSFAS funds was centralised. This has led to ongoing problems, including the current ones.

“If the funding is outsourced to individual universities, they are in a better position to disperse the funds; in some cases, universities would need assistance, which can be easily provided.

The whole model of NSFAS funding as currently administered needs to be revisited,” says Reddy.

Other academics – and a task team – have also provided solutions. If only Nzimande would listen.

Edwin Naidu is a communications professional and Editor of ‘Inside Education’.