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NSFAS' decision to pay students their allowances in cash instead of ring-fencing it with third parties has alarmed academic booksellers, who say this has resulted in the money no longer being used to purchase study material.

In January 2019, the National Student Finance Aid Scheme (NSFAS) announced in a circular to universities, that it would pay student allowances directly to them in cash, instead of ring-fencing the money with third parties for accommodation, food, transport and textbooks.

NSFAS gave rationale for the change as follows: “The NSFAS allowance funding is to assist eligible students with funding for costs related to their studies such as books, accommodation, food, and travel where applicable. In the process we want students to grow to be responsible citizens and take charge of their economic needs and responsibilities. 

"The voucher system that has been used in the past is very limiting in this regard. Therefore, all 2019 NSFAS allowances paid to students must be in cash form, preferably directly into the student’s bank account.”

The South African Booksellers Association (SABA) on Friday expressed concern over this decision, saying: “Our academic sector members, who between them supply the vast majority of Higher Education textbooks in South Africa, have noted that their and others’ experiences of cash disbursements of Public Financial Aid Funds in the country, and similar initiatives in neighbouring countries, have shown that majority students do not use these funds for books or study material as they were intended for with potentially damaging consequences for learning.

"Members have reported that cash disbursements have led to declines in books sales. In Botswana and eSwatini ring-fencing of book allowances were abolished in August 2017, this resulted in an 80% decline in textbooks sold in Botswana and a 94% decline in textbooks sold at Universities that adopted this policy in eSwatini.

"In a number of cases this decline has led to bookstores that service higher education institutions closing with students needing material, no longer having access to resources for their education.”

Among those affected is Van Schaik bookstores, which supplies academic textbooks nationally through its 63 stores, which said it had already noted a significant decline in textbook purchases since universities opened this year. 

“Our sales are down, due to the predominantly NSFAS funded campuses that experienced a tragic drop in textbook purchases,” said Van Schaik MD Stephan Erasmus.

“We have to question the implications of students not buying textbooks in the context of pass rates and drop-out rates. It has been clearly proven that students who do not buy the necessary textbooks struggle to study effectively.”

Erasmus also voiced his concern that NSFAS students could possibly send the money home or spend it on lifestyle items early in the year. 

“Either way they may end up in a situation where they cannot cover their costs of books for the full year, and then drop out of their studies. It is anticipated that this could contribute to an even higher failure and drop-out rate at tertiary institutions," he said.

Erasmus also said that past experience had shown that that if students didn't buy their textbooks, they either attended courses without the required books or illegally photocopied the material.

Without books in the hands of students, lecturers usually attempt to help students by producing class notes to ensure they have study material. Erasmus explained

SABA meanwhile, stressed the vital role academic textbooks play in higher education, saying, "books, regardless of format, provides a framework for courses, convey the latest research and technologies, offer varying formats and teaching methods, and are professionally verified, peer reviewed and presented, to ensure quality content.

“They allow students and lecturers to cover content that cannot be delivered in lectures, in a method that works for the varying levels, teaching and learning styles of students. Content is regularly refreshed, improved and updated to ensure that the latest information and innovation finds its way into course material and student’s knowledge.”

Ring-fencing of study material funds

Over the last 10+ years, SABA says NSFAS book allowances for funded students have been ring-fenced using varying control systems and fund administrators. 

This, SABA explained, has always ensured that funding allocated as a book bursary, could only be spent at approved merchants (primarily academic booksellers) and on student study items.

“The motivation for ring-fencing has always been to ensure that the money is used for educational material that students need to ensure successful studies. We have repeatedly asked for the separation of book funds and that funding for laptops and devices should be similarly ring-fenced.

“The association acknowledges that there was some abuse of the system, but our member data has shown that this has been a relatively small minority, or in selected regions where unverified merchants operated. The association and its members, as professional booksellers, have regularly reported on abuse of these funds, either by students or some non-member merchants, with varying degrees of action taken by authorities.

"The association has tried to engage NSFAS and other Higher Education bodies with proposed solutions, based on our extensive data, to address abuse and improve accountability. It must be highlighted however that the vast majority of funds were legitimately spent by students on beneficial educational material.”

Potential impact on local content development

SABA noted with concern that with the expected reduction in students purchasing books new content development and publication will likely not be financially viable. 

“This will have severe consequences for the development of local content at a time when our country is working hard to decolonize education and position ourselves for the Fourth Industrial Revolution. We cannot develop a vibrant local knowledge base, if there is no teaching content and material created.

“The South African Booksellers Association Members are committed to building a competitive, vibrant, and transformative industry that delivers value to students and especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In conclusion, SABA stressed that while it supported the overall objectives and improvements being made to the NSFAS system and model to creating access to education and fighting poverty, it called on NSFAS to review this decision as a matter of urgency and offered its experience, resources and data to support an informed and improved model for book allowances.