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Organisations and individuals within the academic book supply industry say the decision to resort to providing students with cash allowances for textbooks will have a profoundly negative impact on their success rates at tertiary institutions.

Earlier in 2019, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) changed the manner in which it disburses the student book allowance of up to R5,000, from a ring-fenced system that allowed funds only to be spent on learning materials, including textbooks, to a direct cash transfer.

Providing the rationale for the decision, NSFAS said at the time, “We want students to grow to be responsible citizens and take charge of their economic needs and responsibilities.

“The voucher system that has been used in the past is very limiting in this regard. Therefore, all 2019 NSFAS allowances paid to students must be in cash form, preferably directly into the student’s bank account.”

The Alliance for Academic Success, a group of individuals and entities within the academic book supply industry, including the SA Booksellers Association (Saba) and the Publishers Association of SA (Pasa), called on parliament to look into the matter. Speaking on behalf of the alliance on Tuesday, Mohamed Kharwa, said the decision to disburse R5,000 in cash to NSFAS students has already caused unintended consequences.

Kharwa said that since the change of policy at the start of the 2019 year, academic book sales have dropped dramatically — most notably, but certainly not exclusively, where a high proportion of students previously used their ring-fenced NSFAS book allowance.

“For example, at universities with a more-than 90% dependence on NSFAS funding, book unit sales dropped by an alarming 60% to 91%. This means that the R5,000 of the NSFAS allowance previously ring-fenced for spending on books is now being spent on other items. We estimate that up to half a billion rand in NSFAS book allowances is not being spent on academic materials and textbooks,” said Kharwa.

The alliance is aware that there are many spending pressures facing NSFAS students. These include pressure to remit money home to support family members in need, and to fund the consumption of other goods not related to a students’ education, said Kharwa.

He said, however, “We cannot ignore the impact that not having the required books and learning materials has on a student’s academic success. Textbooks are essential to students’ success at tertiary institutions — the very reason for a textbook allowance being allocated in the first place.

“It is too early to conclude, but with fewer students purchasing textbooks, there is a strong possibility that student performance in SA is declining. Anecdotal reports indicate that this is the case in at least some courses.”

MPs are likely to discuss the matter in parliament on Wednesday when NSFAS briefs legislators on the disbursement of funding and student allowances.

Said Kharwa, “Another year of the misspending of scarce public funds would be devastating to student academic outcomes — the impending ‘academic tsunami’ looming for SA tertiary students must be avoided.”

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