Pressure has increased on CEO Steven Zwane to step down. Picture: SUPPLIED
Pressure has increased on CEO Steven Zwane to step down. Picture: SUPPLIED

The board and executives of the troubled National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) have backed the imminent appointment of an administrator to oversee the work of the scheme as pressure mounts on CEO Steven Zwane to step down.

The multibillion-rand scheme, on the brink of collapse, has been struggling to ensure the smooth roll-out of free higher education due to system and management failures. Many students have complained about delayed payments, which sparked protests at various tertiary institutions earlier in 2018. About 75,000 students who have been granted funding for 2018 are still waiting to be allocated their funds more than halfway through the academic year.

On Thursday, student organisations unhappy about the delay in the payment of allowances, warned of more national protests across higher education institutions, which will disrupt the academic programme.

The crisis is said to have prompted the resignation last week of board chair Sizwe Nxasana, and another board member professor Themba Mosia. Subsequently, the department of higher education and training announced at the weekend that the entire board of the scheme would soon be dissolved.

The department said it is in the process of hiring an administrator who will take over the running of the organisation for a period yet to be determined.

Earlier this week, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) called on Zwane to also step down by Thursday, but the CEO remained defiant and appeared before parliament’s oversight committee on higher education and training, together with the board. Nehawu said it will be "descending on the NSFAS offices in Wynberg Cape Town [on Friday] to help Mr Zwane vacate office".

Addressing MPs in parliament on Thursday, Zwane said NSFAS is seriously understaffed, which compromises the institution’s capacity to deal with all applications for funding timeously. Making matters worse are problems with the IT system. The NSFAS ICT department is "undertaking work to effect improvements to address the 2018 situation and prepare for 2019, [including] improving and correcting data from institutions to fast-track disbursements", said Zwane.

He added that the appointment of an administrator will "assist [the scheme] to address the root causes of the problems".

The acting chair of the NSFAS board and the deputy vice-chancellor of the Central University of Technology (CUT) Neil Garrod told MPs that leadership issues at executive level often mean the board has to go beyond its mandate and step into operational issues. This has prompted the board’s decision to call for an administrator as it feels "its function as an oversight body has been compromised".

The department said the 2018 funding cycle is still subject to "unacceptable delays, mostly linked to data integration issues". However, the majority of students in universities have been paid as a result of support from institutions.

The crisis at NSFAS is in large part because of the poorly planned introduction of free higher education, made in a surprise move in December when former president Jacob Zuma effectively over-ruled the Heher Commission report into the feasibility of free higher education and announced that the government will subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students.

This meant NSFAS had a few weeks before the start of the 2018 academic year to change its processes and systems to execute its new mandate (including converting loans into bursaries) while still running the old funding scheme.

"There are, in fact, two people squarely to blame for this situation: former president Jacob Zuma for making a desperate political promise of free higher education in December last year; and President Cyril Ramaphosa for not having the insight to realise that it is essential to postpone the implementation until the bureaucracy can be made ready, or the guts to actually announce a postponement," said DA MP and higher education spokesperson, Belinda Bozzoli.

"The collapse of NSFAS processes shows that far more planning and far greater investment in the bureaucracy was needed before expanding funding and changing its form, but weak leadership from the president rushed the implementation."

phakathib@businesslive.co.za