The NSFAS is taking students’ concerns into account and is seeking ways to resolve them, says Blade Nzimande.
The academic year has started with student protests at a number of universities, especially universities of technology, over issues associated with registration. Most of the dissatisfaction appears to be associated with the payment of fees and demands for more money from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
Many of the views expressed by role-players have been contradictory and some even call into question the usefulness or effectiveness of the NSFAS. It is thus important to review the role that it plays in our education system.
NSFAS, since its inception, has provided study opportunities to 1.4 million students, mainly black. It was established in 1999 and since then its growth has been phenomenal. Between 1999 and 2008 the funds managed by NSFAS grew from R441 million to R2.375 billion, providing financial aid to almost one-fifth of university students over this period. This year the amount made available through NSFAS is over R9bn. Few government budgets can boast this level of growth.
The number of NSFAS beneficiaries has also grown – from 41 600 in 1999 to 77 000 in 2008, and about 430 000 this year. Until 2011 beneficiaries were exclusively university students, but since 2011 they have included students in FET colleges. This year, the number of beneficiaries in the FET colleges slightly outnumbers those in universities.
NSFAS has made a qualitative difference to the lives of students from poor families. Most of these students have been the first from their families to attend university or college. The majority have benefited greatly from the opportunity, providing skills to the South African economy and benefiting themselves and their families.
A recent study by Professor Servaas van der Berg shows that the academic performance of NSFAS beneficiaries is slightly better than the average.
A significant number of NSFAS alumni have gone on to post-graduate studies and have earned masters and doctoral degrees. No doubt, NSFAS is one of the most significant achievements by the ANC government.
But despite the enormous growth of the funding made available to the NSFAS, it is not enough to cover all the needs of poor students who qualify academically to enter university. Naturally, this causes unhappiness. NSFAS does not continue funding students whose performance is inadequate. This will not change, even though some poorly performing students fuel the protests; those who underperform cannot be allowed to take places from others.
A cause of dissatisfaction among a section of students is the policy of not providing loans for those registered for a BTech degree in universities of technology and comprehensive universities. They argue that this is a bachelor’s degree and should be funded like any other bachelor’s degree. However, all students who enter a BTech programme already have a diploma and thus do not qualify for a loan, which is currently only given for a first undergraduate qualification.
Other reasons behind the recent unrest include the so-called historic debt. This consists of fees that students ought to have paid in past years; in consequence universities will not register them. The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) in the past has set aside millions of rand to assist such students, but funding is limited.
The actual system of granting loans is in need of an overhaul. Up to now, NSFAS money has been paid directly to universities, which have then drawn up criteria for distributing it to their own students. This has meant that there are no nationally uniform criteria for granting loans; and administrative weaknesses at some university and college financial aid offices have also led to inefficiency. NSFAS has therefore decided to shift to a system where it deals directly with the students, thereby creating a more efficient system and obviating the need for universities to be part of the process of awarding and administering loans.
This new system is being piloted in seven universities and five FET colleges. Its introduction has been affected by technical teething problems. Some students are unhappy with online applications, which don’t allow for face-to-face discussion of their needs. Many also say the software is not user-friendly. NSFAS has started to take such concerns into account and is seeking ways to resolve them.
I recognise that some of the students’ grievances are legitimate and that students have the right to protest. What I do not accept, however, is the tendency of some to resort to violence and the destruction of property. This is not only counter-productive and totally unacceptable; it is illegal and will be dealt with as a criminal activity.
The ANC remains committed to progressively introduce free education for the poor up to undergraduate level. This goal has not yet been achieved but huge progress has been made in massively expanding post-school educational opportunities. The government will continue to play its part in ensuring the expansion of educational access until its goals have been reached.