Fees Must Fall 2021: here are 10 key questions

A shutdown is underway at various universities across South Africa as students ramp up protests that began at several campuses last week. Most of the student representative councils (SRCs) at the country’s 26 public universities have agreed to the shutdown. The main demands by the South African Union of Students (SAUS)-led shutdown include the clearance of historical debt; justice for Mthokozisi Ntumba, who was shot dead during protests at Wits last Wednesday (four police officers have been arrested in connection with his death); provision of post-graduate funding; and the suspension of academic exclusion.  

Read more: The List: What’s happening at other SA universities  

The Daily Vox has put together 10 questions we want to answer in the coming days to better understand the protests – not just as they are happening currently, but also to contextualise them. We’ll be updating our answers throughout the week, seeking comment from students, SRCs, university administrators and government departments. We also want to equip present and future students with the information they need to navigate the notoriously complicated NSFAS system.

  1. What is NSFAS?

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is a South African government student financial aid scheme under the Department of Higher Education and Training. It provides financial aid to eligible students from poor and working class families who would otherwise not be able to afford to study at TVET colleges and public universities. The scheme was established in terms of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Act 56 of 1999).

  1. What is the relationship between NSFAS and TVET colleges and public universities?

That Act allows NSFAS to ensure that registered students at public universities and TVET colleges are provided with sufficient funds to cover the costs of their tuition and/or residence, as well as any further reasonable provisions, such as transport, living allowance, book allowances and incidental/personal care allowance. 

  1. Do I qualify? 

Unavoidably in a country like South Africa, with our fraught history and complex present, many may ask whether race is a factor when applying for NSFAS. But funding is actually awarded based on a means test that considers socio-economic factors. And in 2015, a News24 survey indicated that the proportion of student funding the government gives to white, coloured and Indian students may be much larger than public opinion would suggest. At the time News24 asked NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo to shed some light on the issue. Mamabolo said NSFAS’s role was to ensure it provided higher education access to disadvantaged people, whoever they may be. 

“To be previously disadvantaged, it does not mean you have to be Black. We look at your previous circumstances and how they match our means test.”

So, who qualifies for NSFAS funding?

  • All South African citizens;
  • All SASSA grant recipients;
  • Applicants whose combined household income is not more than R350 000 per annum;
  • In the case of a person with a disability, combined household income must not be more than R600 000 per annum; and,
  • Students who started studying before 2018 and whose household income is not more than R122 000 per annum.
  1. What do you need to apply for NSFAS?

Once you have created your MYNSFAS account online you will need to accept the electronic consent form and the terms and conditions for funding. You will then submit certified supporting documents; ID; parent/guardian ID and proof of income; parent/guardian ID copies; and/or Annexure A for applicants with disability. If you are a SASSA grant recipient, no proof of income will be required. NSFAS is communicating funding decisions as from March 12, 2021.

Read more: Here’s what you need to know about NSFAS 2021  

  1. There’s lots of talk about “historic debt”. What is that?

We know that NSFAS is supposed to cover qualifying students’ fees – but sometimes it doesn’t cover the total fees. This leads to what’s known as historic debt – and students scrambling to find ways to pay the balance of those fees. Universities often block those students from continuing their studies until that historic debt is settled. 

Read more: KZN Campuses Quiet Since Historic Debt ‘’Write Off’ Announcement 

  1. I’ve heard people talking about students in the “missing middle”. What’s that?

Those in the missing middle are between the proverbial rock and a hard place: their household income is a bit too high to qualify for NSFAS funding, but they’re still unable to afford higher education. They can fall between the cracks because their families often don’t qualify for bank loans or other financial support. 

Read more: Government gap-funding grant for the missing middle explained 

  1. Hang on, I’m confused. Isn’t free education a government policy

Didn’t former president Jacob Zuma make free higher education a policy of the governing African National Congress (ANC) – and wasn’t that policy then adopted by the government? We’ll be diving into this issue in depth as the week progresses, because – like too many things political and policy, it’s complicated.

Read more: How Serious Is The Government’s Plan For Free Education? 

  1. As far as I can tell, it’s only Wits and UCT students protesting. Right?

Simply put? NO. University students at campuses across South Africa have been and are mobilising. Students at the University of Free State (UFS) have been protesting since the first week of March. Central University of Technology (CUT) interim SRC president Moses Ntonyane has been waiting to meet with CUT Management, but has insisted that protest action is still underway. Rhodes University and North-West University students are also protesting and calling for a #NationalShutdown. The University of Venda and Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) are in full support of a national shutdown, but will not participate in any protests yet: they are focusing on completing the 2020 academic year, which was interrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Read more: Student Protests 2021: what is happening at UFS 

  1. So, are all students protesting, or just some groups?

Pictures from the university protests tell a sobering story: it’s poor, black students who are waiting for feedback from universities and NSFAS before they can register. Speaking to the Daily Vox, a second-year Community Development student at CUT, who asked to be identified only as Ntomboxolo, said she was struggling to register and feels it can only get worse. She’s sure she’s not the only one in this boat: results aren’t being released, she says, and between this and funding delays, many fear their courses will be full by the time they’re permitted to register. Her experience of CUT is that the institution doesn’t communicate; ignores students and doesn’t seem to feel at all accountable to its student community.

“We just don’t decide to protest for nothing, we are provoked,” she told us. 

Read more: National Shutdown: here’s what is happening  

  1. We’ve seen protests like this before. Why does this keep happening?

In many ways, this is probably the most complicated of our ten questions. After all, there are so many players: universities, NSFAS, students, politicians, the state. And within each of those groups, there are different interests and factions.

In short, though, these protests are driven by systemic failures. They tend to flare up at the beginning and end of each fee cycle, which shows how systemic and management failures drive students’ frustrations. Corruption and mismanaged funds are in the mix, too.

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has admitted that funding for higher education needs to be re-prioritised with an eye to equitable and stress-free distribution. Isn’t that rather obvious, Minister? The fact that he needs to say it – and that it hasn’t been done already – speaks to a broken system that’s being held together by a string.

Read more: Blade Nzimande: Funding to be re-prioritised for higher education 

Reporting by Ling Shepherd, Kelly Mutizira and Fatima Moosa

Author’s note: NSFAS no longer provides loans. This information has been corrected.