PROBE: Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor. Picture by Thobile Mathonsi/Masi Losi

Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor has ordered an investigation into the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), as the government’s funding model of university and college students teeters on the brink.

Such is the seriousness of the crisis that student applications for the 2019 academic year, which were due to be opened on Wednesday, have been put on hold. This as NSFAS and the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) struggle with backlogs of applications for this year.

This is revealed in a letter by Pandor addressed to NSFAS board chair Sizwe Nxasana, in which she raises grave concern at the “inadequate progress in processing applications and approving payments” for qualifying students. In the letter, dated July 17, the minister lays bare the incompetence and the administrative bungling by the board in managing the billions-of-rand scheme meant to distribute funds to students to help them afford university and college costs.

NSFAS’s lack of technological capacity and deficiencies, often leading to inaccurate data of students, were among the teething problems with the implementation of the scheme.

“I am extremely concerned about the reliability of the confirmed registration numbers, the slow generation of NSFAS bursary agreements, as well as problems in the disbursements and payments to SBux and non-SBux (a new system to pay students their allowances) institutions as reported by NSFAS management,” Pandor wrote in the letter leaked to The Sunday Independent.

In it, the minister expressed frustration with the NSFAS board for the ongoing problems, despite giving the board directives to resolve the glitches. She had written to the board on May 3 highlighting her concern with the progress in paying allowances to students who are eligible for funding. She then instructed the board to ensure:

An urgent resolution in the integration of registration and funding data between NSFAS and universities and colleges.

Accurate bursary agreements be generated and signed as a matter of urgency while ensuring compliance.

Students immediately receive information of their funding if data related to their application has been integrated.

Such funds be disbursed to students without further delay, subject to control measures to ensure that the correct students are paid.

“It is clear from the most recent reports that the challenges we identified continue to be experienced and that they are having a negative effect on the Higher Education and Training system”

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said the board and management were working with a DHET support team and institutions to address all the concerns raised by the minister.

He said more than 20 000 applications have outstanding documentation required for funding decisions.

“If NSFAS funds these students without supporting documents, it would result in reckless funding decisions.

“To mitigate this, NSFAS has since opened the online platform for students to allow them to upload supporting documents.”

He said funding decisions for applications have been completed and that NSFAS has communicated funding decisions to institutions for 406 000 university and TVET students, including returning students.

“We are working with institutions to close gaps and ensure that all students receive their dues” Mamabolo said.

Pandor wrote: “While acknowledging the progress NSFAS has made and the hard work the board has put into the process, I am of the view that the four priorities I have identified have not been adequately addressed - a full seven months into the academic year.”

She further raised her frustration with the NSFAS board’s response on May 17, in which management indicated their support for the establishment of the departmental developmental teams. The minister was told on July 4 that the board had appointed a subcommittee to oversee the progress made by management to address all problems. Despite that, she said, numerous reports from NSFAS and departmental officials were fraught with discrepancies.

“The data that NSFAS presented in its reports is confusing, sometimes inaccurate, and shows that the core data integration challenges remain. This has brought to light the continuing inefficiencies in the entity’s business processes and the inability of the entity to implement the DHET bursary scheme effectively.”

In May, she warned of a “looming disaster” at NSFAS, saying the scheme lacked the technological systems required to administer the billions it received in funding.

“They don’t have the technology to process appropriately. It’s actually quite a looming disaster for us,” she said in Parliament.

In the letter, Pandor orders that the NSFAS subcommittees be dissolved and that a single board member be appointed to work closely with the support team.

Students at some universities have embarked on protests over the non-payment of their NSFAS allowances this year.

In May, student organisations told Parliament that, without their allowances, many students on tertiary campuses were left destitute and hungry.

A highly placed source said the problem was so severe that some students have dropped out despite qualifying for NSFAS funding. The source said the implications for the administrative deficiencies are dire.

“Every Grade 12 learner who passed last year and has applied for funding may not be funded.”

The source said logistical problems contributed to the problem as NSFAS was being administered from Cape Town. “Imagine a child in Bloemfontein. Instead of walking in at the university for enquiries, he has to phone the office in Cape Town through a call centre. Then he gets told different stories each time he makes a follow-up."

National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union general secretary Zola Saphetha said the problem was that NSFAS was being “run like a spaza shop”, and that nepotism in the employment of staff was rife.

Pandor admitted it would be difficult to defend the NSFAS board from the public and students because funding for this academic year had not been finalised, and that “there are still students who remain without funding and certainty about their funding status”.

The minister has given NSFAS a 14-day ultimatum, which lapses tomorrow.

Pandor also instructed the board “to directly oversee and finalise the close-off of the 2017 and 2018 student funding cycle effectively and in the immediate short term” while “the department investigates all business processes at NSFAS” due to start next month.

“However, in the interim, I am directing NSFAS not to open the application process for 2019 on August 1.

"This cannot be done until 2018 processes are concluded,” said Pandor, adding that the board should work closely with the department, Universities SA and the South African College Principals Organisation “to develop a plan that will ensure a seamless 2019 application cycle”.

The Sunday Independent