Beneficiaries should not repay their NSFAS loans

2016-02-24 19:25

When Higher Education and Training Minister Nzimande joked about launching a #StudentsMustFall movement, many criticised him for being insensitive to the plight of students. But few pointed out that students have been falling for years hence the #FeesMustFall protests.

The Treasury once complained that money spent on NSFAS was not producing the desired outcomes. This was due to low graduation rate. It is estimated that of the two thirds of NSFAS beneficiaries not currently enrolled at institutions of higher learning, around 28% have actually completed their qualifications.

The cold hard reality is that these students have been failed by the institutions established to help them. They went to university with big dreams. That one day they too would walk at Great Hall in their graduation gear to collect their qualifications. But because we have a system that is designed to ensure fewer made it, they find themselves drowning in debt with no qualifications.

The research commissioned by NSFAS suggested that some of them go back to universities to complete their qualifications. But this is limited since academic programme rules may require you to repeat a subject that you have already passed if it was done 5 years ago. So the options for a dropout to go back to academia are limited.

See when you get that NSFAS loan for the first time, in theory for some, it comes with a textbooks, food, accommodation or travel allowance. When you have to reapply the following year, the institution expects you to meet a certain average mark. This used to be 50% but has gone up to 55- 65% in most institutions.

This means that a poor student who had benefited from NSFAS in the previous academic year may qualify for re-admission to study, pass all their subjects, and still fail to qualify for a NSFAS loan depending on their average mark. Dr Venicia McGhie has spent a considerable time studying students who do not have English as a home/1st language. Over the years, this group of students has warranted interventions from universities to help prepare them for academia. Because secondary schooling does not do a good job.

Dr McGhie would tell you a long list of challenges these first year students face. The bottom line is that the current funding model consider such challenges. It was designed for the student who has a particular mark, not a poor student who fails or just passes or average student. The increase in the mark to qualify for NSFAS was a reaction to funding shortfall so that there would be fewer students qualifying for NSFAS loans.

Those who do not get it may dropout or fail the academic year altogether since they do not enjoy that financial support but are expected to pass, and if they pass, improve their mark without textbooks and other support that would have been provided by NSFAS. Other funding models will usually fund the student from first year to graduation. So when you are given funding, it is for the entire duration of your studies. This ensures that your job as a student is to study, pass, and complete the programme.

Withdrawing financial support contributes to the low completion rate. Once you've been pushed out of the system without a qualification but a mountain of debt, paying back the loan is a bitter pill to swallow. Especially if you had  qualified for re-admission but had to dropout due to lack of funding.

This systematic exclusion is the reason the billions spent on NSFAS will not produce the desired outcome without reforming the entire model. The current model that is being piloted does not address this challenge. When you hear about students owing billions to NSFAS, consider that they were actually pushed out of the system because they were poor first year students who were not adequately prepared for academia or just average achievers.

Some adjust well but others fall through the cracks.  Even those who pass end up financially excluded. A working funding model would encourage students to complete their studies so that they can find work and pay their debt. When an overwhelming majority of those who were funded do not have a qualification, surely there is something fundamentally wrong with the model. But our politicians like to think they have the best ideas and their current ideas are working.

The threats to blacklist this group of students for not paying NSFAS loans shows just how ignorant those in leadership are. While I would encourage every working NSFAS beneficiary to pay, the overwhelming majority who do not even have a qualification ought to receive some sort of debt relief. Blacklisting them could also make things worse if they are part of the 8 million+ unemployed which is likely to be the case.

So there are two things Minister Nzimande can help with. First, he can reform NSFAS to offer guaranteed financial support until graduation to every poor student who secures admission or re-admission (even if re-admission is after an appeal). Second, scrap debt from beneficiaries who have not completed their qualifications and encourage them to go back to complete. This can be done while we wait for President Zuma's #FeesMustFall commission to report back, and for Zuma to "apply his mind" on the report since he takes forever to study reports.

NSFAS was not established to trap poor, overwhelmingly black students in debt. That is what it has done to the two thirds of beneficiaries who have no qualifications to show for the debt. Instead of raising the bar alone, more could've been done to help students reach the bar rather than push them out of the system. As things stand, if NSFAS is not reformed, and President Zuma, like he has done with previous reports, ignores recommendations,  the billions allocated to NSFAS will not yield the desired outcomes and impact.

While NSFAS has increased the number of enrollments from historically marginalised people and contributed to the growth of the black middle-class, graduation rate remains worryingly low. It means money is spent for the sake of being seen to be spending not focusing on the overall goals and objectives. NSFAS dropped the ball when it allowed universities to come up with own criteria for funding which created this mess. And Parliamentarians failed to hold the executive to account for the billions they have spent without producing results. Accountability which would have ensured that recommendations on reforming student finance were implemented. Now the country is seeing the mess.

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