Menu Close

NSFAS needs a reset to align with developmental priorities

Add to my bookmarks

Share This Article:

Picture: Armand Hough / African News Agency (ANA) / Taken on August 16, 2023 – Students gather at Cape Peninsula University of Technology in Cape Town, South Africa, before they march to Parliament to oppose direct payments from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. The failure of NSFAS to address the backlog of 2023 and its inability to avoid delayed disbursements for 2024 will polarise the terrain and may lead to student protests which, as always, will negatively affect the process of learning and teaching, the writer says.

By Hendrick Makaneta

The new academic year is about to resume amid great uncertainty within higher education, particularly with regard to student funding.

As I write, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is sitting with a backlog of unpaid allowances for students who studied in 2023.

Although the NSFAS board has promised to resolve the backlog, there is one more problem.

The increasing number of students at South African universities and in Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) colleges, along with the budget review that impacts various state organs, will undoubtedly result in a reduction of funding for students.

The key question which must be answered is: what should the NSFAS do under these circumstances?

It is my submission that the NSFAS board should be more proactive by sourcing funding from external sources such as the private sector. The board of NSFAS should try to expand the scheme so that it can accommodate the growing number of students in the terrain of higher education.

We know that the expansion of NSFAS cannot be done overnight. In the meantime, the scheme should find a way to prioritise critical skills that will generate returns to the economy.

NSFAS alone may not be able to identify critical skills with a view to funding such programmes first before others and should collaborate with the Department of Labour and the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation to identify all the critical skills that require urgent funding and do everything possible to safeguard such skills with the limited resources at their disposal.

But at the same time, NSFAS, working with relevant stakeholders, should develop a long-term plan to sustain the disbursement of funding even during times of recession. Education should always remain an apex priority. Funding for critical skills should be viewed as an investment that will yield great returns in the near future.

The Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation previously published a list of critical skills that are needed for the development of the country. There is sufficient consensus that South Africa’s technical development relies on the preparedness of learners to take up key programmes that entail gateway subjects such as maths and science.

It is this category that should be prioritised for funding purposes during the budget realignment process by the national Treasury.

A matter of concern is that there are reports of students who have benefited from the scheme in fraudulent ways. The scheme should give proper accountability on how many students have been detected, coupled with the steps that have been taken to recover lost funds.

It cannot be correct that deserving students are sitting with unpaid allowances and outstanding tuition fees as a result of dishonest students who do not deserve funding.

The approach that must be taken at all times should be to ensure that academically deserving students who meet the requirements should not be excluded from their studies.

In order to manage funding better, the NSFAS should also get its house in order by putting in place operational systems with maximum capacity to deliver.

We need competent people at the helm who are up to the task. It cannot help the country in any way to have board members who are just there to improve their CVs instead of serving students with diligence.

It is for this reason that we should applaud the board for coming up with the 2024 programme of action which includes the establishment of a rapid response team.

Society is looking forward to the commitment made by the scheme that the backlog of 20 000 allowances will be disbursed by mid-January.

What is even more encouraging is that the NSFAS board was readily available over the festive period to do the work as and when they were required. The preparedness of NSFAS to deal with the challenges faced by students will be tested before lectures resume.

One hopes that the planned consultations with the relevant stakeholders will yield positive results and avoid possible protests by students.

But, of course, the failure of the scheme to address the backlog of 2023 and its inability to avoid delayed disbursements for 2024 will polarise the terrain and may lead to student protests which, as always, will negatively affect the process of learning and teaching.

Last year, Higher Education Minister Dr Blade Nzimande also presented a plan to address the unresolved issue facing the “missing middle” students.

We can only hope that the plan will also yield the desired results because its failure may cause further anxiety among students, and it may ultimately lead to tensions within the various higher education institutions where a conducive environment for learning may not be guaranteed due to protests.

Therefore, the NSFAS board, along with the minister, should live up to their commitments.

Hendrick Makaneta is an education activist completing an LLB degree at the University of Pretoria