Naledi Pandor. Picture: GCIS
Naledi Pandor. Picture: GCIS

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

The NSFAS has been struggling to ensure the smooth rollout of free higher education, with many students complaining about delayed payments. This has sparked protests at tertiary institutions around SA.

Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor said she was aware that some continuing senior students had 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," Pandor said.

There were still system integration challenges, she said. This had affected the submission of registration data to the 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. This data integration enables NSFAS to generate a bursary agreement form, which must be signed by the registered student. Once agreements are signed, students receive funding allocations."

Pandor said her department was assessing all the scheme’s processes and systems.

"The department will ensure that 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 had 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 had been set aside for qualifying university students and R2.6bn for TVET college students.

The result was that the baseline allocation to the NSFAS to support poor and working-class university and TVET students would increase from R9.9bn in 2017-18 to R35.3bn in 2020-21.

"This implies a need for improved efficiency and systems development at NSFAS.

"We have therefore allocated an additional R105m … to assist NSFAS to increase and strengthen its administrative capacity," said Pandor.

Belinda Bozzoli, the DA’s higher education and training spokeswoman, said the party would be writing to the chairperson of the portfolio committee on higher education and training to request an urgent meeting with NSFAS on why thousands of students had reportedly not received allowances in months.

“NSFAS and  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.”