Picture: THINKSTOCK
Picture: THINKSTOCK

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has defended its decision to provide students with cash allowances for textbooks saying the move will give the students financial freedom.

Earlier in 2019, 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.

The move has inevitably attracted criticism from book merchants. Earlier this week, the recently established 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. The alliance suggested that since the change of policy, students were no longer buying textbooks, raising the “strong possibility that student performance in SA [will] decline”.

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said the call to change book vouchers to cash was one of the many demands by the student leadership as part of their input to the policy governing student funding in the higher education sector.

“It’s a fact that stopping the book vouchers was a good decision for a number of reasons … Students have been the target of a voucher scam in various campuses. There were many commercial interests by merchants providing services to students at a fee using vouchers,” said Mamabolo

“Book sellers were colluding with students for redeeming the book vouchers, thus violating the agreement for the provision of book services to the students. Students were trading the book vouchers for cash outside many supermarkets.” 

Financial freedom

He said the voucher system was limited to selected merchants that monopolised the student market for many years and “there was no financial freedom for the students on where to purchase books, including second-hand retailers”.

The book allowance has increasingly been extended to a learning materials allowance that included laptops and tablets, said Mamabolo. “We believe that students should be treated as adults and have the financial freedom to withdraw the cash voucher and make an informed decision on how to best utilise the funds. The ultimate responsibility is in the hands of the students. In the process, NSFAS expects students to grow to be responsible citizens and take charge of their economic freedom.”

Mamabolo said NSFAS does not want to be directly drawn into the commercial interests of merchants.

“NSFAS is governed by policy that is designed with inputs from key stakeholders, with students at the centre of the process. We have all seen the role students play in our country, and we respect their view and inputs. Therefore, we cannot ignore their views in favour of commercial interests. Booksellers should engage student leadership directly, and the department of higher education, science and technology, if they really want to challenge the policy.” 

Unisa student Dineo Moea said the negative view of students receiving cash for books is “pushed as propaganda by these merchants, who have charged us exorbitant prices for years, have milked student allowances from struggling students for years through this monopolised system, and now they are threatened by the decline in sales,” said Moea.

“From the standpoint of students, the decision to receive cash for textbooks has been a far more manageable and responsible form of transaction. When NSFAS was still using the sBux voucher system, as students, we were forced to buy books from registered merchants, who charge us exorbitant prices and exploit our allowances.” 

phakathib@businesslive.co.za