The Parliamentary Committee of Higher Education has raised concerns, regarding the spike in anxiety amongst the NSFAS-funded student population of South Africa.
The Committee's worry stems from the decision taken by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to defund some students, without warning.
The sudden loss of their tertiary education funding has resulted in many students scrambling for answers and alternative solutions.
The Committee noted that one of the most significant issues leading to instability in the Higher Education sector, was the anxiety present in the student population.
Why NSFAS Defunded 40 000 Students
More than 40 000 students were defunded by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). This was revealed by NSFAS board chairperson, Earnst Khosa in a media briefing on Monday, 7 August 2023.
Khosa explained that NSFAS has faced challenges in the past whereby students who did not deserve to be funded, received a bursary from the scheme. This prompted the scheme to improve its verification checks to ensure only deserving students receive funding.
According to the bursary scheme, these students were found guilty of submitting false information as part of their NSFAS applications, in order to secure.
For example, using a relative's information when asked to provide proof of financial need, positioning the relative as the student's parent; thus, the household income would be below the stipulated threshold that determines eligibility.
When this was discovered by scheme, the response was to immediately revoke the dishonest student's funding, which the scheme has stated is the "default response".
NSFAS then teamed up with third-party entities to assist with the verification of student information. These entities include the South African Revenue Service (SARS), state security agencies and the Department of Home Affairs (DHA).
The onboarding of these third-party entities then lead to the re-evaluation of applications whose funding have been approved. This re-evaluation found that some students who are receiving funding, were actually not deserving.
NSFAS Has Defended Its Decision to Defund Thousands of Students
They [the students] submitted falsified or fraudulent documents, and these had to be instantly defunded as continuation of knowingly funding individuals who do not meet funding requirements would be going against the provisions of [the] funding policy, whilst depriving deserving students.
According to findings discovered by the Special Investigating Unit (SIU), R5.2 billion was granted to undeserving students.
NSFAS has been criticised for being insensitive when it comes to the immediate defunding of ineligible students, but the scheme has reiterated that wrongfully funded students are taking away financial aid that deserving students are in need of, and that "swift and firm action" is the priority.
Some Students Believe They Were Wrongfully Defunded
South African Union of Students (SAUS) Secretary-General, Lukhanyo Daweti, says there are students who believe they were wrongfully defunded.
Daweti says one of the grievances the Union had with NSFAS and the defunding of students, is that no formal communication was sent out to let the students know what was coming, and why.
NSFAS is also notoriously difficult to get into contact with, meaning wrongfully defunded students may go months without allowances they depend on and are actually eligible for.
While there are cases of students submitting fraudulent or incorrect information when applying for NSFAS in order to gain funding approval, there is also the possibility that some students have been wrongly defunded, and have now had their access to higher education stripped away.
NSFAS Spokesperson, Slumezi Skosana, previously stated that:
If such cases are true, this is regrettable. A process of verifying these complaints will be immediately initiated and if proven, remedial action will be taken.
Universities South Africa (USAf) has said that "the defunding of students in the middle of the academic year has caused challenges for the students and the universities."
NSFAS has provided neither the reasons for the revocation of student bursaries nor a mechanism of appeal for the defunded students. Those students who have tried to reach NSFAS have been unsuccessful.
Students who feel they have been wrongfully defunded have been given the chance to submit an appeal or re-apply all together.
Mr. Masile Ramorwesi, Acting Chief Executive Officer of NSFAS, stated during the Committee meeting that the wrongfully defunded students had been reinstated, but that 31 224 students remained unfunded.
Certain Student Groups Still Remain Excluded From Higher Education
The students who did lie on their NSFAS applications are likely those who fall under the "missing middle", meaning their family's household income is considered too high to receive financial aid.
But, the reality is that despite coming from backgrounds that earn above the stipulated NSFAS income threshold, it is not enough to pursue the incredibly expensive journey of higher education.
"Missing middle" students have notoriously and continuously been excluded from accessing higher education, and although the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) says it has been working on implementing solutions (such as a more comprehensive student funding model), tertiary education and all its extra expenses are simply unaffordable for a large majority.