NSFAS must not be an albatross

2014-10-03 00:00

PROTEST action and the destruction of property at institutions of higher learning and former FETs are symptomatic of the deeper problems faced by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

The latest wave of protest, on which Tshwane University of Technology is riding, started at the beginning of the second semester. What is now seen publicly is grand-scale manifestation of smaller perennial struggles which have been waged within the institution over years. Unless the NSFAS comes up with a viable model, addresses the source of funding and revises the criteria for choosing beneficiaries, institutions of higher learning must plan for annual disruptions and mayhem, all because of an albatross that is not of their making.

For some time now, the NSFAS, which is an upgrade of Tefsa (Tertiary Education Fund of SA), has been experiencing major challenges. However, the solutions provided have been reactive, largely prompted by students’ complaints and actions. No thorough planning, with a view to overhauling the system, has been attempted. This is despite the 2010 appointment of a ministerial committee to look into the effectiveness and challenges of the scheme. The major recommendation of the committee was an increase in funding, although it put the NSFAS’s success rate at 15%. Should this not have provided enough grounds for a relook at the model, rather than a resolve to increase the funds and centralise its administration?

For most recipients, the NSFAS is their life blood as a result of their socioeconomic situation. This means that any form of material assistance to students is shared with their family. In addition to an institutional nutrition programme, merit bursaries, university funds administered by NSFAS, an access fund known as Tsenang Loan Scheme and Tuks’ Rag’s (Receive and Give) food parcels for needy students at the University of Pretoria, there is always a need for more assistance.

If this is happening at an institution that was formerly white and well-resourced, what then is the experience of students in historically black and disadvantaged institutions? Many students are having to deal with more complex problems than tuition fees — they need a place to stay, food, money to buy books and more money to maintain their families at home.

In order to turn the situation around, three things ought to happen. First, the country has to ask itself some tough questions. Such as whether the majority of students who spend a number of unproductive years at universities ought to be allowed into the system in the first place, and whether communities are playing the role they previously played in ensuring the success of their children.

Secondly, planning has to take precedence over reaction. This will help the country to move away from the “Father Christmas” kind of approach, which is typical of South African solutions. Wherever there are challenges, promises of financial intervention are made as if money is a panacea in situations where creative thinking could have resulted in perhaps a more sustainable solution.

Thirdly, prospective candidates for the NSFAS should be identified by the schools, from among the pupils whose potential to reach university level might be limited by their socioeconomic conditions. These pupils should be nurtured with resources that are generated by the schools, involving communities and governing bodies. At Grade 11 (or earlier), lists of such pupils should be forwarded to NSFAS for planning purposes so that the government knows two years in advance how many students will be going to university and how many will be going to FET colleges, and can plan its budgetary accordingly.

All the above will not bring an end to the protests today or next year. Students need answers to their immediate needs so they may approach the coming examinations with peace.

The Department of Higher Education and Training alleges that out of the R12 billion they requested, only R8 billion was made available. Now NSFAS says that it needs more than R15 billion to cover everyone. Would the private sector and Treasury not be able to share the shortfall that could make a huge difference to the stability of our institutions between now and the beginning of 2015?

• Professor McGlory Speckman is a professor of theology at the University of Pretoria and a former dean of students at the university. He was recently seconded to the University of Zululand as advisor on student affairs. He has published a paper on student material support in a book co-edited with Martin Mandew.

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