Stabilising the business processes of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would be a key government priority in 2019, President Cyril Ramaphosa said in his state of the national address (Sona) on Thursday night.

Some of SA’s higher education institutions recently came to a standstill as students protested over funding delays by NSFAS and slow registration processes. NSFAS has been struggling to ensure the smooth roll-out of free higher education. Many students have complained about delayed payments‚ which also sparked protests at various tertiary institutions in 2018.

The crisis at NSFAS is in large part because of the poorly planned introduction of free higher education, made in a surprise move in 2017 when former president Jacob Zuma effectively over-ruled the Heher Commission report into the feasibility of free higher education, and announced that the government would subsidise free higher education for poor and working-class students.

This meant NSFAS had a few weeks before the start of the 2018 academic year to change its processes and systems to execute its new mandate (including converting loans into bursaries) while still running the old funding scheme.

Ramaphosa said the free higher education funding scheme was being phased in over a five-year period until all undergraduate students who qualified in terms of the criteria could benefit.

“Stabilising the business processes of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme will also be a priority in the coming year so that it is properly capacitated to carry out its critical role in supporting eligible students,” the president said.

Ramaphosa said the government was concerned about recent developments on some campuses, especially reports of violence and intimidation.

“Of particular concern, is the tragic death of Mlungisi Madonsela, a student at the Durban University of Technology. We extend our deepest condolences to his family and call on law-enforcement agencies to thoroughly investigate the incident. We call on student representatives and university authorities to work together to find solutions to the challenges that students are facing,” Ramaphosa said.