Picture: 123RF/RATTANAKUN THONGBUN
Picture: 123RF/RATTANAKUN THONGBUN

A key government agency tasked with the verification and evaluation of local and foreign academic qualifications has been forced to operate at limited capacity due to funding constraints, which could leave thousands of prospective students and employees in limbo.

Students with foreign qualifications who want to pursue their studies in SA need to have their qualifications verified and evaluated by the SA Qualifications Authority (Saqa). A private company or government department that wants to check the authenticity of a prospective employee’s academic qualifications also has to approach Saqa.

Saqa, which falls under the department of higher education, science & innovation, recently had to offload more than a third of its 170 employees. This is amid a cash crunch caused by the Covid-19 crisis and a cut in government funding after the state diverted funds away from departments to SAA in a bid to resuscitate the ailing national carrier. 

Saqa’s finances were also whacked in 2020 because of the lockdown, which led to reduced demand for verification services. ​

Saqa said it faced closure if it did not act to reduce its personnel costs.

 “Due to the recent retrenchments and the transitional period we are going through, we anticipate some delays in processing applications,” Saqa CEO Julie Reddy said in response to questions from Business Day.  

Saqa has informed applicants through its website about the expected delays. “We have also ensured that we have cross-functional teams that are assisting to minimise the delays should they occur,” Reddy said.

Under normal circumstances, the turnaround time to verify local qualifications is between one working day and 20 days. The turnaround time for processing applications for evaluation of foreign qualifications is between 15 working days and three months.

“The three months is to allow for instances where we do not receive verification responses from foreign institutions within 15 working days,” Reddy said.

Saqa had a government grant of R72.5m in the 2020/2021 financial year, which was subsequently cut by R1.2m as the government scrambled to save SAA, which has been grounded for over a year.  Overall, the R117bn budget of Saqa’s parent department was cut by R1.1bn, as the state moved to drastically reduce expenditure across the board to claw back fiscal stability. 

In his budget vote speech in parliament last week, higher education, science & innovation minister Blade Nzimande bemoaned the cuts. He highlighted that the department’s budget will increase at an average of 1.4% over the medium-term expenditure framework, which is way below inflation.

“Indeed, the budget cuts will slow down even faster movement in the expansion of post-school education and training opportunities,” Nzimande said.

Saqa receives about only 44% of its required annual funding from the government and needs to raise the rest to cover its operating and other expenses. It raises this through the fees it charges for the services that it offers, including the evaluation of foreign qualifications and verification of national qualifications.

 “This would be an ideal time to automate systems to offer a streamlined and more efficient service ... Unfortunately, Saqa has to place this project on hold until funds become available,” the agency said in the annual performance plan.

Ahmed Bawa, CEO of Universities SA, an association of public universities, expressed concern about the funding crisis.

“We are concerned about the capacity challenges faced by Saqa. It is particularly concerning to us as it relates to postgraduate students who obtain their qualifications elsewhere and for which there isn’t a direct translation onto the national qualifications framework,” Bawa said.

“For first-time entry students this is not so much of a problem as the issuing of exemptions for entry to universities is also done by the matriculation board, which is located with Universities SA.” 

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

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