Naledi Pandor. Image: GCIS
Naledi Pandor. Image: GCIS

As it prepares for the roll-out of free higher education, the Department of Higher Education and Training is working on ensuring the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is integrated into college and university systems.

NSAFAS has been struggling to ensure the smooth roll-out of free higher education, with many students complaining about delayed payments. This has sparked protests at various tertiary institutions around the country.

Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor said at a news conference in Parliament on Tuesday that she was aware some continuing senior students have not yet had their funding finalised. "I find this to be unacceptable and have instructed my department and NSFAS to work with institutions to deal with the outstanding cases as a matter of urgency. There are still significant challenges with regards to system integration between NSFAS and institutions."

This had affected the submission of registration data to NSFAS.

"The exchange of data is crucial, as this will confirm to NSFAS that students assessed to be eligible for funding in terms of the means test are registered at an institution," Pandor said. "This data integration also enables NSFAS to generate a bursary agreement form, which must be signed by the registered student before funding is allocated to the student. Once agreements are signed, students receive their funding allocations."

The minister said that this year the department had decided to assess all NSFAS processes and systems, and to address all the identified problems brought to its attention.

"The department will ensure the NSFAS systems are effectively integrated into the colleges and university systems and that NSFAS staff work closely with financial aid offices at institutional level to address any problems. Every single delay has a real effect on students, on their ability to access accommodation and food, books and ultimately on their ability to succeed. We simply cannot fail to distribute funding to students when it is available."

Pandor said additional government funding of close to R7.2bn in 2018 has been allocated to fund bursaries for children of poor and working-class families entering universities and technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. About R4.6bn has been set aside for qualifying university students and R2.6bn for TVET college students.

The result is that the baseline allocation to NSFAS to support poor and working-class university and TVET students, will increase from close to R9.9bn in 2017-18 to just more than R35.3bn in 2020-21.

"This implies a need for improved efficiency and systems development at NSFAS. We have therefore allocated an additional R105m over the medium-term expenditure framework to assist NSFAS to increase and strengthen its administrative capacity," said Pandor.

Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s higher education and training spokesperson, said the party will be writing to the chair of the portfolio committee on higher education and training, requesting an urgent meeting with NSFAS on why thousands of students have reportedly not received allowances in months.

"NSFAS and the Minister of Higher Education Naledi Pandor needed to answer three key questions at their press conference today: how many students have not received their allowances?; why has this happened?; and when will these students receive their funding? Unfortunately, they failed to do so, aside from some vague assurances that they are ‘working on’ some problems that have arisen with loan agreements and data integration," said Bozzoli.

"This kind of vague answer means nothing to students who have nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat, as has been widely reported in the media."