The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has been given the urgent go-ahead to release funds to first-time qualifying students so they can enrol for higher education.
They were previously unable to do so due to funding shortfalls, guidelines and a decision by cabinet.
On Thursday, acting minister in the presidency Khumbudzo Ntshavheni announced that the government had decided to allocate additional funding to NSFAS.
The government would now spend R42.1bn on the scheme this year, up by nearly R7bn from the budget of nearly R35bn in 2020 – which was already more than the R32bn the year before. NSFAS funded 700,000 students in 2020.
The cabinet received a briefing from higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande on the funding shortfalls faced by NSFAS – with the challenges having delayed the finalisation of the registration of first-year university students.
The Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the challenges, some of which related to the extended academic year and the number of students qualifying for funding due to parents having lost their jobs.
To solve this, cabinet approved additional funding.
“Cabinet has directed that further work must be done to find a more sustainable approach to fund students for their tertiary education. Cabinet remains committed to ensuring that all deserving students are not excluded due to a lack of funding,” Ntshavheni said.
Nzimande welcomed the decision. “NSFAS will now be able to release funds for new students qualifying for NSFAS bursary support. As I already indicated, continuing students who meet the qualifying criteria have already been allowed to register,” he said.
“This process is extremely urgent, as some universities are already starting their academic programmes, and others will be commencing during March and April.”
The decision comes amid heightened student protests which led to the fatal shooting of a bystander, Mthokozisi Ntumba, outside Wits university on Wednesday.
Both Nzimande and Ntshavheni dismissed allegations that it took ages for government to take action on the student issues. They argued the matter was long in discussion.
The cabinet resolved that funding should be reprioritised from within the department of higher education budget.
“Further reprioritisation can only be considered as part of the medium-term budget process of government, which takes place later this year. This decision has been taken in the context of funding cuts and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said Nzimande.
“No NSFAS-qualifying students have been affected by these delays, as universities had agreed to extend the registration period to ensure that students without funding decisions would not be prevented from accessing a place that they qualify for.”
The higher education minister said the cabinet had also agreed that a comprehensive review of the student funding policy of the government was urgently required and has instructed his department to immediately commence with the work and revert to the cabinet.
The registration processes, which were extended by two weeks, are now expected to continue following the cabinet decision.
One of the issues which have been raised by the protesting students in Braamfontein is that of students’ historic debt, which hindered some registering for a new academic year.
Newly appointed Wits vice-chancellor Prof Zeblon Vilakazi said it was worrying that student debt at his institution was nearly R1bn – “almost double what it was at the end of 2017″.
Nzimande admitted this was a serious concern. “Government is very concerned about the issue of growing student debt in the system, as are the universities. This is an issue that will also be considered as part of the policy review,” he said.
“Some of the demands that are being received by the government and universities relate to the debt of students who may not be funded by NSFAS but who are struggling to register because they have not been able to pay debts, but are doing well academically.”
While there was no immediate solution to resolve the student debt crisis, Nzimande said some universities had made arrangements with students to sign acknowledgment of debt agreements.
“In this regard, I will be engaging with the university leadership teams to explore ways in which we can try to ensure that final-year students who are on track to graduate and are performing well are able to register for their final year through such acknowledgment of debt arrangements,” said Nzimande.
Both the ministers allayed students’ fears by stating that no deserving, especially poor, student would be left out.