The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAs) is the aid scheme which provides financial aid to undergraduate students for their tertiary education. It is funded by the department of higher education and training. Since 2018, NSFAs has also been a “free education” provider. Despite the many structural and administrative changes to the scheme, many students still encounter difficulties using the system. The Daily Vox team takes a closer look at these challenges.
One of the major challenges students face with the funding scheme are delays in receiving their allowances. NSFAs usually say these issues are due to students either not filing in their forms correctly or other administrative issues. However, the problem still remains and students are sometimes forced to buy their own textbooks and pay their landlords with money they do not have. There are also huge delays in meal allowances which means students do not have money for food. This presents a massive problem as students are forced to study without access to food.
Another thing is the personal care allowance is around R2900 per annum. This works out to just under R250 per month. This is quite a small amount for students to have to take care of themselves. While it is good that the personal care allowance was introduced in 2019, the amount cannot be hailed as a huge achievement especially for menstruators.
Then there are also the delays in letting students know whether they will be receiving funding or not. Students often have to start the academic year, unsure if they will be receiving funding or not. If their funding applications are not successful, this means students either have to drop out or make alternative arrangements for funding. This is partly why there are annual protests at institutions of higher education at the beginning of the academic year.
While NSFAs say their systems are becoming more efficient, students still have many difficulties. This hinders students’ ability to register for funding or even send in queries if their applications are unsuccessful.
Professor Sioux McKenna, director: centre of postgraduate studies at Rhodes University said a key problem is capacity within the department of higher education itself. “The decision to centralise the management of NSFAS some years ago after the mismanagement by some universities was problematic,” she said. McKenna said the central system is simply not coping with the huge demand (and some universities were managing the funding process very well internally).
“It’s not just NSFAS, it’s various other grants too. DHET simply doesn’t have the people to keep the system going,” said McKenna.
The department of higher education and training has also been considering a proposal that might see a requirement of 75% pass rate. This means students might need to get 75% and over to keep their funding. This is because the department and NSFAs says there is a R10 billion shortfall. However the funding scheme had an irregular expenditure of R6.8bn. The auditor-general also raised concerns over a further R50 billion that was irregularly spent, but not disclosed.
During a webinar hosted earlier this year by Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane, she said NSFAs need to urgently find solutions and address issues. One of those issues was the reports about NSFAS not being responsive to students via email and its other systems. Mkhwebane said: “That should be prevented and should be dealt with speedily. Secondly, [NSFAS must find a solution to issues] and that solution should be addressed as a matter of urgency…”
On any given day, hundreds of social media messages can be found with students’ queries on social media. These range from not being able to track their status to their mobile numbers not being recognised.
There is also another final systemic issue around higher education funding. It is seen by the department, NSFAs, the minister and others as a privilege. They think students should be grateful for the opportunity to receive funding. However, as Rhodes Scholar Ofentse Makgae said in 2015: “Higher education is not a privilege, it’s a constitutional right and the only path to break the poverty cycle for black poor families.”
The system is already severely stacked against many students applying for higher education. The least the government and NSFAs can do is ensure students’ needs are met and put first.