Johannesburg - In a week when nearly 3 000 poor University of Johannesburg (UJ) students faced the spectre of financial exclusions, the Department of Higher Education and Training admitted it was battling to keep up with demand for funds.
With university fees increasing by above-inflation figures, the wheels at the government’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) appear to be coming off.
Just last Saturday President Jacob Zuma told the nation at the launch of the ANC’s 2014 election manifesto the ruling party was still committed to introducing free education at all levels.
Meanwhile, the scheme threatens to exclude thousands of poor students – the majority of whom are poverty-stricken and black.
The 2 909 UJ students all qualify for NSFAS, but the university hasn’t received enough funds from the government to enrol them. “UJ can’t accommodate all qualifying NSFAS applications solely because the grant we received is insufficient,” Jaco van Schoor, the deputy vice-chancellor for finance, told The Sunday Independent.
He said they estimated that “we will require additional funding of approximately R149 million”.
More than 1 700 of the students are supposed to start their first year. Some 790 are senior students and 390 are in their final year.
NSFAS is battling to keep up despite its funds for loans and bursaries having jumped from R2.6 billion in 2012 to R3.9bn this year, as pointed out by the department’s chief director of higher education policy Chief Mabizela. “However, one of the key reasons why poor but academically deserving students are unable to access higher education is that funding falls far short of the demand.”
In fact, the 2010 Ministerial Review Report on the NSFAS indicated that the scheme required three times its budget to meet the demand for financial aid by qualifying applicants, he said. But the department’s allocations from the Treasury were still not enough to allow it to fund all students who qualified.
Treasury’s budget allocation to education is made against other competing demands, said Mabizela.
“This means that the education sector may not be allocated all the funding it requires.”
NSFAS was funding 205 000 students at 23 universities and 215 000 at the 50 FET colleges this year, said Mabizela.
Van Schoor revealed that NSFAS still owed UJ approximately 42 percent or R198m, in real terms, of money the university claimed last year.
This was also a contributing factor to the university’s inability to enrol the 2 909 students.
Prins Nevhutalu, vice-chancellor of the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), said NSFAS’s incommensurate funds left the institution with debt each year.
“…It turns out that the government student financial aid scheme is not sufficient to cover all the costs,” he said.
“Furthermore, government subsidies do not take the economic status of students into consideration. As a result, CPUT has a large student debt which unfortunately has to be written off annually.”
But CPUT’s council had resolved to come to the rescue of students whose fees had not been paid, in that “any academic excelling student admitted to CPUT shall not be turned away”, said Nevhutalu.
“CPUT believes it is making a major contribution to breaking the cycle of poverty by giving a lifetime opportunity and empowering the poorest of the disadvantaged communities,” he said.
“On the other hand, it is time for the government to seriously consider incorporating the economic status of the student body in the subsidy.
“We need to find a way of sharing the burden of poverty with all the other institutions.”
Mabizela said the department “notes” its increased NSFAS funds “may be nominal and result in real increases thus not meeting the demands and needs of universities”.
But the department “cannot arbitrarily implement measures to curb fee hikes in a context where there is no additional funding and there are increasing expenses”.
He said the department “would like to believe that universities’ fee increases are arrived at scientifically and that evidence exists to support their decisions”.
Mabizela argued that though the cost of public higher education was becoming increasingly unaffordable, fees were still low. “In comparison to model C school fees, private FET college fees and private higher education and training, the fees at university are relatively low.”