By Tswelopele Makoe
THIS past week, masses of university and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) college students from across the nation protested against the sudden defunding of over 45 927 students by National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
In the Western Cape, countless students marched to parliament to hand over a memorandum of concerns citing the new NSFAS payment system, eZaga, as well as exhausting delays with payouts.
This type of crisis in the education sector, and particularly where the government-led NSFAS scheme is concerned, is unfortunately not new. The onset of almost every new academic year in the recent past has been soiled by a lack of accountability and fore-thought in the dealings of the national financial aid scheme.
This issue may be seen as a financial misgovernment challenge, however, in reality, the futures of masses of students are affected.
Defunding a student in the middle of the academic year results in them losing their housing, their monthly allowance, school fees allocation, registration fees, and many more.
Ultimately, students across the nation are being left destitute due the sudden changes in the administration of the NSFAS, and these places them in an alarming position of vulnerability.
These challenges with NSFAS have been ongoing since May of this year. Although the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education addressed this challenge, ordering NSFAS to effectively remedy the situation, they have failed to do so.
What is particularly unnerving is the distressed manner in which they have let down countless students across the nation. The defunding of students by NSFAS was instigated by the initiation of a remedial process where students found to have been funded based on incorrect information were to be defunded instantly.
This process was aimed at reducing the wrongful and illegal allocation of funds. The defunding of students who are already on a solid academic trajectory is highly irresponsible and ineffective to the society we are trying to build.
If there is any wrongful allocation of funds, it is the onus of NSFAS to address this without disintegrating the entire system, and the students within it.
The challenges that come with the allocation of funds should have been effectively grappled with, holding the responsible people accountable, rather than punishing the students who initially qualified.
Although the CEO of NSFAS was this week placed on a leave of absence, the educational trajectory of countless students has nonetheless been left in peril.
What is particularly treacherous about this situation is that scores of students that have travelled across the nation in hopes of pursuing a brighter future are essentially being left homeless and hungry.
In South Africa, over half of the population lives in poverty. Students that come from underprivileged homes are highly reliant on student funding schemes such as NSFAS. As of this year, NSFAS is reported to be funding over 80% of the students in the entire nation.
This means that the defunded students, that constitute the majority of the students in South Africa, are placed in the firing line.
Since being defunded, scores of students have been kicked out of student housing and residents, have had no access to meals or financial aid for living purposes, have been barred from their courses due to insufficient payments, and have overall been placed in a highly precarious situation.
The manner in which NSFAS has tackled this issue is atrocious. They have essentially stripped students of the opportunity to educate themselves, empower themselves, and meaningfully progress their lives.
By educating our young citizens, we are building citizens that will be progressive, developmental, creative, and stealth contributors to our ailing society.
Furthermore, educating even one household member is transformative, as they will be able to meaningfully contribute to the growth of their families and their communities.
Poverty is already a huge blockage in the path to success, and funding schemes like NSFAS are supposed to alleviate this challenge.
Defunding students right in the middle of the year shows a lack of compassion and appreciation for the power of education in itself. Furthermore, in the South African context, people of colour have historically been subjugated and repressed, particularly where education is concerned.
It is therefore deplorable that a government scheme, in post-apartheid South Africa, would discard countless defenseless students so carelessly.
The defunding of so many students, at this point in time, is extremely mindless and discourteous.
My hope is that the leaders of this nation, together with the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, are able to come together to find a proper solution to this challenge, that does not adversely impact the standing of the students who are involved.
Education is not merely about creating a solid foundation on which to build a career, it is also about growing a deep sense of confidence and responsibility in oneself. It is about the development of critical skills that are pertinent to prosperity in one’s adulthood.
The state of our nation’s education is in jeopardy. At the forefront of student funding schemes, should be the utmost need to protect and provide for the student.
The government of South Africa has claimed to consider education as its highest domestic priority, but recent events show that this is extremely questionable.
Above all, as a nation, we need to bring focus to the development of intellect and critical thinking in our society. This cannot be done without proper functions and systems of support.
Education is not a mere luxury, it is a tool that shapes the future of our citizens and of our society, and we need to undertake it with the seriousness that it deserves.
It is clear that we have come to an unnerving point in the history of education in our democracy, and now more than ever, it is pertinent that those in power uphold their constitutional obligation and human right commitment to education.
This is how we reduce inequality, how we promote development, and how we actualize the future that we want to see. Former President and Nobel Peace Prize recipient Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela once candidly reiterated: “…let me say this and say this with the utmost conviction: the nation owes you a clear policy and practical measures to ensure that the youth contributes to, and benefits from, our new democracy.”
Need I say more?
- Tswelopele Makoe is a Gender Activist and an MA Ethics student at UWC, affiliated with the Desmond Tutu Centre for Religion and Social Justice. All views expressed are her own.