Johannesburg - A Department of Basic Education senior official this week told students that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) has admitted to system failures in allocating bursary allowances.

But Nsfas has hit back, saying “this is completely untrue” and that the department was, in fact, to blame for Funza Lushaka allocation problems.

Funza Lushaka is a full-cost, multi-year bursary scheme introduced in 2007 to promote teaching in areas of national priority.

South Africa is facing a dearth of young teachers, as new matrics shun the profession, and the department wanted to address this problem with the bursaries.

This week the department and Nsfas have been at odds over an allowance distribution mess that has distressed the bursary holders at Unisa.

But administration of the scheme at Unisa, which is the responsibility of Nsfas, has hit a snag.

Unisa has the country’s largest student body, and the university also attracts the largest pool of students from poor communities.

The Sunday Independent reported last week that Funza Lushaka bursars at Unisa were being deprived of the allowances they signed up for.

While Nsfas made them sign for thousands of rand – sometimes as much as R80 000 – the students were not receiving the full amounts. This had left them without food and accommodation allowances. Transport allowances, too, were paltry sums – a far cry from what the scheme used to allocate them and had promised for 2014.

Even textbook allocations had been delayed, with the result that students went without textbooks for almost the entire first semester, leading to one student commenting, “We wrote worst exams ever”.

The students said they suspected they were being defrauded, as answers were not forthcoming– either from Nsfas or Unisa call-centre officials. Even the Department of Basic Education had no answers for them, but this week it convened a meeting with Nsfas to “urgently address” Funza Lushaka issues.

Gerrit Coetzee, director for initial teacher education in the Department of Basic Education, told students that Nsfas’s piloted allocation system was actually the failing link. Nsfas has been piloting a funds allocation system it calls sBux. This is a cellphone application that issues vouchers.

“Nsfas has acknowledged that there have been delays in the payment of bursary allowances and book vouchers. The delays were mainly because of system failures after the introduction of the pilot.

“Nsfas is urgently attending to the challenges regarding the transfer of money to students,” Coetzee assured the students.

“Nsfas is in the process of transferring book vouchers to students.”

But this was far from the truth, said Iris Mandindi, a spokeswoman for Nsfas. “It is completely untrue to say that Nsfas has admitted that its piloted sBux system has not been a success. Nsfas did not say this in any meeting. Nsfas did not report system failures...” she said.

The agency shifted the blame to the Basic Education Department for Funza Lushaka bursary failures.

“The facts are that Funza Lushaka students must receive funds from the beginning of the academic year, in January. But the Department of Basic Education makes its selection of students who will receive bursaries only in April. Funding is also provided to Nsfas by the department only in April,” said Mandindi.

“Nsfas called on the department to align its selection process with university registration periods to ensure students can receive funds in January each year. There is no reason for the department’s selection process to last up to April, as this seriously disadvantages bursary students.”

SBux was, in fact, a success, Mandindi said.

“In the past five months, the sBux system has distributed more than R100 million successfully to more than 63 000 students at 10 institutions throughout the country for books, travel, food and accommodation.”

Created by Celbux, a private mobile banking solutions company, sBux is a system that Nsfas uses to transfer allowances to loan and bursary students.

The allowances are issued as vouchers, which students can exchange for food, accommodation, books and travel.

Nsfas first piloted the system at the University of the Western Cape last year and extended it to 12 other institutions this year.

Unisa is included in the 2014 batch.

The agency said it had introduced sBux in a bid to limit the abuse of funds by beneficiaries.

But the system appears to be causing commotion beyond Unisa’s Funza Lushaka beneficiaries.

A trilateral student representative council (SRC) conference – of the University of Pretoria (UP), the University of Cape Town and the University of the Western Cape held this year – heard how sBux was hampering students’ access to funds.

The UP’s SRC recently asked the institution’s management to “oppose implementation” of sBux at the university next year, at least until Nsfas took the the university into its confidence. “Until such a time that Nsfas provides solid evidence of the effectiveness of the sBux system, the UP SRC rejects the system in order to protect our financially needy students, and we will pass this stance on to our successors,” said the SRC’s Nthabiseng Nooe.

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Sunday Independent