Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has maintained that “there is no crisis” at the embattled National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), despite complaints about service providers’ failure to disburse student allowances and the resignation of a top IT official.
The entity came under the spotlight after chief information officer Modibedi Oliphant resigned with immediate effect, having been served a notice letter of suspension as a result of the IT unit’s alleged poor performance.
Its chief executive officer Andile Nongogo was placed on leave amid Werksmans Inc investigating him over service provider tender allegations.
Briefing the media on Tuesday, Nzimande said he had directed the board to implement a new performance management and accountability framework in a bid to establish a high-performance culture within the entity.
“I have had a meeting with the board which gave me an initial report about these challenges. I have therefore directed the NSFAS board to immediately review their overall governance and management design to ensure the full execution of their mandate.
“Implement their redesign Information and Communication Technology (ICT) system, which leverages modern technologies and capabilities in order to deliver the NSFAS mandate seamlessly.
“Implement a 24-hour call centre and improve their stakeholder, media and communication relations.
“Initiate criminal and legal action against all students who have been defrauding NSFAS,” he said.
Nzimande was joined on Tuesday by NSFAS board chairperson Ernest Khosa and other senior officials on developments at the entity.
NSFAS has come under harsh criticism from different stakeholders in the sector over its internal management issues and decisions relating to the new direct-payment system.
This affected operations including failure to timely disburse allowances to students while thousands of other students were wrongfully defunded.
The late payments of allowances resulted in students not being able to buy food, pay rent and other important items. They also raised concerns about “exorbitant” bank charges.
“To strengthen the NSFAS board, I have taken a decision to replace two board members who have since resigned and appointed two additional members to the board.
“Former Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) Vice-Chancellor Professor Laurens van Staden, who has a wealth of experience in the higher education sector and has over the past four decades demonstrated his commitment to serving the poor and working-class citizens of the country through his work.
“The NSFAS board requested someone with legal and law background, that is why I appointed Professor Ntombizozuko Dyani-Mhango, who has over 16 years’ experience in teaching, conducting research and supervising in the areas of constitutional law, public international law and international criminal law.
“She also served as a clerk at the South African Constitutional Court, was admitted as an Advocate of the High Court of South Africa, and is rated as an established researcher by South Africa’s National Research Foundation,” said Nzimande.
Lucian Kearns, who is the current acting Chief Financial Officer at the Department of Higher Education and Training is also jumping into the entity.
Nzimande is expecting to finalise the appointment of another representative from Treasury, who will be part of the board.
“We might have been experiencing glitches here and there.
NSFAS is not in a crisis as many of our government detractors would want the public to believe. Actually, we have turned the tide in student funding for the children of the poor and the working class. NSFAS is the biggest, single largest student funding agency in Africa and a unique scheme in the world in that it completely funds students for their study, travel, accommodation and personal care,” he said.
This as the entity, joined by the controversial service providers Tenet Technology, eZaga, Noracco Corporation and Coinvest Africa, are expected to brief the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education today on their contract and profile.
Higher education expert and former Universities South Africa (Usaf) chief executive Professor Ahmed Bawa said Nzimande could claim there was no crisis, however, other people in the sector might feel otherwise.
“Every single lecture that is lost is a crisis and this is something that must not be avoided. It’s not clear to me if this is just about adjusting the way NSFAS works IT works. We have to re-image NSFAS. Re-image its relationship with universities, government and the way it interacts with students and other stakeholders. There are many financial institutions around the world which work perfectly well.
There is nothing completely unique about South Africa so we can learn from other institutions,” said Bawa.
While welcoming the changes to the board, UWC SRC president Mandla-Onke Notyawa said Nzimande could not say there was no crisis, while students were struggling and had staged a number of protest actions.