Pretoria - The future of thousands of tertiary students hangs in the balance as they remain uncertain about being funded by the national students’ scheme, which has, over the years, run low on money as demand has outweighed available resources.
Desperate students at institutions of higher education from the city and across the country, who had not been given confirmation of being on the list of beneficiaries for the year, said they were loosing hope of continuing with their studies.
Some of them had already received confirmation of funding, while others were asked to wait for a few more days for notification of funding.
Others had, however, been told they would not be getting financial assistance from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
“After calling and emailing and failing to get an update from my institution I finally got a response from NSFAS – I was not on the list this year,” Busiswa Sambudla said.
The 34-year-old mother of two was due to start her final year in social work at Unisa and a call to the fund’s call centre confirmed that she would have to find alternative means of funding her education.
Saying she had been forced to drop out right at the end of her academic career, Sambudla said: “Why they would bring me this far, only to drop me, defies logic.”
She had already secured herself a post to do her practicals at a local NGO and has now been forced to withdraw.
“It is the end for me,” she said, adding that she had no idea of what to do or where to look for a job, because, even after three years of studying, she had no qualification.
Outside the University of Pretoria on Tuesday, returning students spoke of their frustration at the processes of the fund, one saying his parents had been forced to take out several loans when the fund failed to pay for his second semester studies last year.
He asked not to be named, and told the Pretoria News: “I re-applied in September, and was contacted and told to expect confirmation by the end of last year.”
He had waited until Monday to find out if he would be able to register for second year for a law degree (LLB) and after calling and going online he was no nearer to knowing.
“You cannot imagine how stressful this is, considering that registration closing dates are near,” he said.
The NSFAS has been beset by problems for a few years now, with funds allocated to the various institutions of higher learning failing to meet the demand of students needing assistance.
Last year’s budget of R8.2 billion had resulted in a shortfall of R42 million, which saw students across the country failing to register for the second semester. Some universities (like Unisa and the University of Cape Town) dug into their own coffers to pay for students.
This year, the NSFAS is armed with a budget of R8.3 billion.
According to Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande, this would see 205 000 beneficiaries at universities and 215 000 at further education and training (FET) colleges being given loans and bursaries.
But the challenges of the fund emanated not only from the high demand for education by the thousands of poor black students, but structures, policies and systems had not kept pace with the growing number of students.
A discussion by a parliamentary portfolio committee meeting on higher education last year also agreed that the loan management system was outdated and inadequate and they called for the introduction of a centralised application and allocation process, which took effect from the beginning of this year.
The NSFAS said it was introducing a new Student-Centred Model for NSFAS Loans and Bursaries.
According to NSFAS spokeswoman Lauren Vanacore, in this new model, pupils would be contacted from as early as Grade 9, so that they knew which loans and bursaries they could apply for before they left school. There will be a central process for students to apply for NSFAS loans and bursaries.
Students will be able to apply directly to NSFAS online and would be informed of the progress of their applications by SMS and email, Vanacore said.
This new NSFAS student-centred system was to be introduced this year and would be implemented for all universities and FET colleges by 2016.
In the new system, NSFAS will continue to pay tuition and residence fees directly to each university or college. Allowances for private accommodation, food, books and transport will be paid directly to students by NSFAS.
Vanacore said R9bn for more than 400 000 students had been made available for this year at 25 universities and 50 FET colleges.
“The system has changed and instead of getting information from institution offices, students are being instructed to deal directly with the fund,” she said.
Vanacore said the old system was designed to handle small numbers of loans and small amounts of funding. “It is completely inadequate for managing the distribution of billions of rands a year in public funds to hundreds of thousands of students.
“Another aim of the new student-centred system is to prevent fraud and corruption by ensuring that funds are used for the purposes intended in the NSFAS Act and that NSFAS is able to account fully for the public funds it is entrusted to distribute,” Vanacore said.
She said under the new system, all students would be funded for the full duration of their courses, on condition their academic performance was good.
Vanacore expressed concern over reports of final-year students who had been left off the list, and said: “They are among our major priorities for funding.”
She said the scheme would look into the reported cases with a view to determining where things had gone wrong and making them right.