Sizwe Nxasana. Picture: MARTIN RHODES
Sizwe Nxasana. Picture: MARTIN RHODES

Sizwe Nxasana’s decision to step down as chairman and member of the board of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) suggests that there is a serious crisis at the multibillion-rand scheme, say observers in the higher education sector.

Nxasana, a seasoned corporate executive, announced on Thursday he was stepping down after three years at the helm of the institution.

Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities SA, said there was a realisation now that the need existed for a different kind of financial aid institution "which is much more effective and more connected to the process of applications and admissions in universities. A new structure."

"Mr Sizwe Nxasana as chair of the NSFAS board, brought an important business-like edge and innovation. The problem is that NSFAS was never designed to meet its targets. Demonstrations have been going on at our universities for more than 15 years driven primarily by financial aid issues," Bawa said.

NSFAS has been struggling to ensure the smooth roll-out of free higher education. Many students have complained about delayed payments, which sparked protests at various tertiary institutions earlier in 2018.

Belinda Bozzoli, the DA spokesperson on higher education and training said Nxasana had been set up to fail. "I blame [Jacob] Zuma and [Cyril] Ramaphosa for this. They dumped the whole thing on him and NSFAS could not deal with it."

Higher education minister Naledi Pandor’s spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele told Eyewitness News on Friday that she had “sadly” accepted Nxasana’s resignation. She said it was unfortunate that it came at a time when the scheme was trying to resolve several problems.

However, the National Education‚ Health & Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) welcomed the resignation‚ calling it a necessary step towards fixing the embattled scheme.

“Nxasana had no intentions of fixing NSFAS‚” said the union. “He did not even fund raise a single cent but operated with the funds from the department of higher education and training.”

The EFF Students Command said it was “theatrical for a NSFAS chairperson to resign at this moment from a scandalous and ineffective institution … after costing the future of many students.”

In July, Pandor asked NSFAS to pause applications for 2019 due to a backlog in the allocation of student funding for 2017 and 2018.

Nxasana‚ who served as chair for three years‚ said in a statement on Thursday that he had informed Pandor of his decision on Monday. He said it had been a privilege and an honour to serve as a board member and chairperson.

“While the last few years have been extremely challenging‚ I am grateful for the opportunity to have been able to immerse myself in education and contribute to finding sustainable solutions for the higher education sector‚” said Nxasana.

NSFAS financed more than 400‚000 students from poor and working-class backgrounds in 2018.

It is unclear who will fill the vacancy left by Nxasana. Pandor is planning to call a special board meeting to discuss the way forward.

With Nonkululeko Njilo