Former board chairman of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme Sizwe Nxasana. Picture: Siyasanga Mbambani/GCIS (Archives)

Johannesburg - Former board chairman of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) Sizwe Nxasana has accused former president Jacob Zuma of deepening the problems of the scheme by announcing free higher education with no plans late last year.

Nxasana resigned from NSFAS last week as the organisation battled to clear the backlog of student applications for funding dating back to 2016, which forced Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor to order temporary closure of new applications.

Speaking on Tuesday night during a roundtable discussion on youth unemployment and education at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Sandton, Nxasana said the crisis at NSFAS led to him to burn out and leave.

"I just got to a stage where I burnt out. I really got tired. My job was supposed to be non-executive but there were times for at least three or four months last year when I literally relocated to Cape Town and I was an executive at NSFAS, which is not exactly what I signed up for.

"I agreed because this was the problem for the country and by the way, I am doing all of this pro bono. I'm not taking any fees. It is a commitment that I made that I will assist," Nxasana said.

Nxasana was appointed to the helm of NSFAS in 2015 by then minister Blade Nzimande after he resigned as chief executive of First Rand Bank.

Nxasana said just after he was appointed, a decision to introduce the student-centred model of funding poor students by NSFAS, bringing problems to the scheme.

The model saw students being stopped from applying for financial aid through universities but from NSFAS directly, which he said forced the scheme to manage applications from students with systems and staff that were not fit to handle the change.

Nxasana said Zuma's announcement of free higher education in December, however, worsened matters and threatened to collapse the systems of the institution, as it created expectations with no plans on how it would be funded.

Zuma's announcement came after he received a report from a commission of enquiry be appointed to establish the feasibility of fee-free higher education.

"The president studied those recommendations and decided that he is not going to adopt any of them. We woke up on the 16th of December and he announced to the nation that there is going to be free education. 

" We had to meet in two days later as NSFAS and figure out how this was going to be funded and how it was going to work because there was no detail. The government itself acknowledged that there was no detail," Nxasana said.

Nxasana said the announcement saw an unprecedented influx of students to tertiary institutions, with some even refusing to sign agreements with the scheme after they were accepted as they said it was free.

"Normally we would get around 170 000 students who qualify for bachelor degree and around 250 000 for TVET colleges, but we received more than 600 000 applications for 2017," he said.

"You are now sitting with a situation where more than 400 000 students have signed their agreements and have been funded but we only paid those who have signed the agreements," said.

In what appeared to be a blame directed at the EFF, Nxasana said some even called on students to visit tertiary institutions in numbers.

"We all know the political party that said students must go and queue at colleges and universities and force them to enroll them. It has been proper hectic and it has been relentless," he said.

Nxasana said while he had spent much of his time trying to turn around NSFAS, he could not take it anymore, adding that even his plans to move it from Cape Town to Johannesburg where it would benefit from skills would be opposed even if he stayed.

"Even getting skills from Cape Town is difficult but you cannot move NSFAS to Johannesburg because the unions are going to say 'we are going to lose jobs here'. There are elections next year and there is no political will to make some tough decisions to stop the things that are fundamentally broken. 

" There is a space where you need to step aside and allow others to come in and take things forward," Nxasana said.

Political Bureau