Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

The government is scrambling to find additional funding for poor higher education students as sporadic protests against financial exclusion flare up at some universities.

One person died on Wednesday after police fired rubber bullets at protesting students at Wits University’s Braamfontein campus.

During a portfolio committee meeting on higher education and training, department of higher education director-general Gwebinkundla Qonde told MPs that senior department officials led by minister Blade Nzimande would be presenting funding proposals during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.

Higher education deputy minister Buti Manamela said the department has been working with the Treasury to identify policy and funding options.

It is unclear at this stage what the funding options are, but indications are that the department will have to reprioritize its budget to channel more funds towards the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the funding agency for poor higher education students.

“The funding guidelines for 2021 will be finalised as soon as cabinet has made a determination in this regard. We believe this could have a major impact on the strategic plan and annual performance plan of our department. We are doing as much as possible to keep the adverse impact as minimal as possible,” Manamela said.

During a question-and-answer session later in the National Assembly on Wednesday, Nzimande said cabinet had taken a decision, but “unfortunately I cannot speak on behalf of cabinet”. Cabinet is due to make an announcement on Thursday, he said.

The Budget Review, tabled in parliament in February, shows that allocations to the higher education and basic education sectors will hardly increase in the medium term as the government struggles to stabilise its finances. Allocations to NSFAS will increase from about R37bn in 2021 to R38.6bn in the medium term, or at an average of 1.7% over the period, which is well below the inflation rate of about 3.3%.

Last week, Nzimande said the deteriorating situation associated with budget cuts started a long time before Covid-19.

“In terms of the laws and policies regulating public finances for departments and entities, including the Public Finance Management Act, NSFAS is not able to commit to funding students without the requisite budget available to support this commitment.”

The minister said, however, NSFAS was going to be funding all returning beneficiaries and students who meet the academic and other relevant criteria for continuing their studies.

In the February budget finance minister Tito Mboweni indicated that the government remained committed to ensuring that deserving students were supported through higher education.

In line with this commitment, Mboweni directed that the department of higher education should work with the Treasury to identify policy and funding options to be detailed in the medium-term budget policy statement.

NSFAS officials told parliament’s higher education portfolio committee that Mboweni’s statement should have been backed by detailed funding plans to create certainty within the sector. NSFAS is going to be funding all returning beneficiaries and students who meet academic and other relevant criteria for continuing their studies, however it remains uncertain whether new students will be adequately funded. 

For 2021, NSFAS said, data show that continuing university students requiring funding in 2021 numbered 387,664, up from about 281,000 in 2020 as more students seek financial aid due to a Covid-19 induced economic crisis. NSFAS expects to fund 137,549 students — down from almost 180,000 the previous year.

Portfolio committee chair Mohlopi Mapulane said: “It’s really going to be a sad day if students that are deserving are not funded because Treasury has not allocated funds, and we can’t even blame the department because allocations are made by the Treasury. But in a developmental state like ours we should be prioritising education.”

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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