Steven Zwane. Picture: SUPPLIED
Steven Zwane. Picture: SUPPLIED

Steven Zwane, the newly appointed National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) CEO, has embarked on a charm offensive with vice-chancellors and student organisations to build confidence in the scheme.

In 2017, the NSFAS started introducing its new "student-centred" model, cutting out universities and colleges as middle-men as the scheme took over the processing of applications.

This was intended to curb fraud and corruption, which in the past had led to students and university officials colluding to manipulate students’ funding needs by misrepresenting their information. The result was that the scheme was unable to determine who was truly eligible for its funding.

Zwane’s five-year contract began on September 1.

He starts his term at a time when the NSFAS has opened applications for the 2018 academic year that are due to close at the end of November.

He takes over from Msulwa Daca, who resigned in January.

One of the NSFAS’s core challenges is juggling large demand for its funding amid constrained allocations made to it by the government.

Zwane said on Wednesday that, in meeting with vice-chancellors and student formations, he wanted to improve relationship management.

NSFAS chairman Sizwe Nxasana advocated the new model in 2016, saying it would ease the administrative burden and, it was hoped, reduce delays in providing funds to students.

But the organisation has faced a barrage of issues with the model during the year, including late payments for student allowances that have led to many student-led protests at universities and technical and vocational education and training colleges.

Zwane said that the NSFAS platform had to be more efficient and accessible operationally, and disbursement of funds had to become more student-centred. "Decisions need to be made quicker and students must be paid on time," he said.

"We must drive efficiency in operations and technology."

Such a turnaround had to be coupled with building leadership capacity, attracting the right people to the organisation and putting processes in place to streamline work flows in the NSFAS office.

The scheme recently came under the spotlight when it was discovered a R14m payment had been made into a Walter Sisulu University student’s account.

The blunder was blamed on service provider IntelliMali, which distributes NSFAS funds on behalf of the university.

Zwane said that despite its shortcomings, the new model had given the NSFAS an opportunity to own its data, which would help it to build supporting tools for students.

Finding funding sources was another issue he spoke about during a series of media interviews in Johannesburg.

The first order of business was to maximise existing resources from the state.

"At the moment, we have got money that we are not fully extending," he said.

The NSFAS would now aim at improving its pool of funds and its methods of managing them in the long term.

For 2017-18, the Treasury awarded R15bn to the NSFAS with which the scheme expects to fund just more than 500,000 students, capped at R76.000 for each student on the scheme.

Zwane said acquiring new sources of funding would be determined by building trust with interested parties.

Although the private sector was eager to become involved, reputation was key to this. It had to start by restoring confidence in the scheme "so that in four years’ time, when I go and ask for money from international and local funders, they are able to come on board," he said.

"If beneficiaries are not proud of NSFAS, why would anyone else be?" he asked. "NSFAS … is a lifesaver…. I need to build a fit-for-purpose organisation."

Zwane said the organisation would also aim at implementing various technologies employed by banks. It was intending to plug into financial services and using bank-like cards instead of vouchers to transfer payments to students.

"I won’t tell you where to buy and not [to] buy, but I am able to hold you accountable for your transactions," Zwane said.

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