The Parliamentary Committee Group for Higher Education had much to say about the ongoing failures of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), particularly when it comes to the handling of appeals so late in the year.
Despite the academic year approaching its end, thousands of students are still uncertain whether or not the government will pay their university fees.
Students funded by NSFAS have their tertiary education costs covered by the scheme, which includes registration, tuition and accommodation fees, amongst other expenses.
What Is A NSFAS Appeal And What Is The Delay
Not every student's application gains immediate approval; if rejected, students can submit an appeal, essentially asking that NSFAS reconsider their application. The appeal must be submitted within 30 days of seeing the 'unsuccessful' NSFAS application status.
The Committee has been adamant in reminding the scheme that it could not be dealing with appeals in September, as students are nearing their final examinations, meaning majority of the academic year has passed, and students have been left without funding.
For the 2023 academic year, some students were eligible for funding, but were not funded with all the proper documentation, and a significant number of students were wrongfully defunded.
Why Some Students Were Wrongfully Defunded
During the meeting held between the Committee and NSFAS, the Committee expressed disappointment over a mistake that suddenly led to more than 14 000 eligible students wrongfully losing their funding. The Committee demanded information on steps being taken to rectify the situation and prevent future incidents.
Earlier this year, the scheme began defunding students who they deemed were not deserving of funding.
The bursary scheme explained that the decision to commence with a remedial process of defunding students came in response to the discovery that they paid more than R5 billion to students who did not meet the eligibility criteria, but received funding.
However, it was later revealed that some students had been mistakenly defunded due to NSFAS errors.
NSFAS acting CEO, Masile Ramorwesi, explained that 45,927 students were disqualified for submitting falsified or fraudulent documents.
The main reason for disqualification was that most first-time entering students had a household income of more than R350,000, while returning students either did not meet the required academic progression – which is 50% of all registered modules – or exceeded the minimum number of years allocated to achieve the qualification.
He confirmed that after NSFAS re-evaluated the applications, 14,703 applications were reinstated, while 31,224 remained disqualified.
Minister of Higher Education, Blade Nzimande, has also provided clarity surrounding the defunding situation.
Nzimande explained that many first-time entering students who had been approved for funding were suddenly defunded due to newly discovered parental relationships.
These relationships are verified through information obtained from government agencies such as the Department of Home Affairs (DHA) and the South African Revenue Service (SARS).
According to NSFAS, some students declared they were from a single-parent household or provided incorrect parental information. This information went initially undetected by the DHA, which led to the students receiving funding.
Nzimande says due to this trend of misrepresentations, NSFAS worked to establish the parental relationships of students.
The bursary scheme has explained that there had been instability in the sector for the whole year. Additionally, the query system was non-responsive, and thus the appeal system took a significant amount of time to conclude.
NSFAS has accused students of trying to cheat the system by submitting documents of their relatives as their legal guardians to qualify for funding.
The Committee has harshly criticized NSFAS' response, saying:
This entity should be one of the best-run entities in this country if it understands what the objective of the country is, if it understands that it must ensure that young people are skilled, are able to contribute to the development of the country and change the livelihoods of their families and communities they come from. Instead, it was an embarrassment.
With all the increased amounts of money poured into NSFAS, the scheme has continued to fail students.
Additional Criticisms From the Committee
A focal point of the Committee's concern was the appointment of four service providers to distribute funds to universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, as part of the newest direct payment method for NSFAS allowances.
The direct payment system has caused a lot of controversy and frustration, for both NSFAS stakeholders and student beneficiaries, which has lead to an investigation from the Public Protector.
This comes after Stellenbosch SRC Vice Chairperson, William Sezoe, lodged a complaint asking the Public Protector to look into the awarding of the contract for the new NSFAS direct payment system.
I have last week written to the Public Protector to investigate the National Student Financial Aid Scheme direct payment system and in particular the involvement of the CEO of NSFAS with the awarding of the specific tender.
According to investigation findings by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa), all four service providers NSFAS partners with are young and unexperienced companies. Outa further revealed that the companies were also not registered as Financial Service Providers at the Financial Sector Conduct Authority (FSCA).
The Committee has further emphasized the urgent need for resolution, calling the bursary scheme an "embarrassment", as these issues were continuously having a negative impact on students. The NSFAS Board and management were warned of potential consequences if the situation persisted.
NSFAS provides comprehensive bursaries to more than one million students attending public universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges. The NSFAS bursary covers tuition and registration fees and also provides students with money for food, learning materials and rent in the form of NSFAS allowances.