November 14, 2018

Education Committee working with department to avert funding crisis

South Africa’s tertiary education institutions could face turmoil in 2019 that would make the Fees Must Fall disruptions of 2015/6 pale in comparison as the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) struggles to play catch-up with burgeoning funding applications. The Minster of Education, Naledi Pandor, has already taken far-reaching steps to try to avoid an explosive crisis at campuses countrywide in the next academic year.

Minister Pandor had temporarily shut down the cycle of NSFAS funding applications for 2019 to give the funding body an opportunity to catch up with the lag in payments that in some cases went back to 2016. Editor's update -- The Minister reopened funding applicationd for 2019 on 1 Seoptember 2018.

The Minister has taken the fairly drastic step of placing NSFAS under administration, an institutional rescue plan which has until now been reserved as a last attempt to rescue provinces in which governance has effectively collapsed. It is the point at which government recognises that an existing administration has failed to such an extent that it requires hands-on intervention at the level of national governance.

The parliamentary Committee on Higher Education and Training expressed support for the ministerial decision to bring an Administrator on board, but at its most recent meeting sounded a warning that NSFAS cannot afford to wait for the Administrator to be appointed.

The Administrator will oversee the running of NSFAS, during which time the Board will be effectively dissolved. The immediate task of the Administrator will be to ensure the effective close of the 2017 and 2018 funding decisions and disbursements, as well as to put in place plans for the 2019 funding cycle. The Terms of Reference for the Administrator are still to be drawn up but it is expected that a support team with skills in student financial aid, human resources management, information technology and business systems analytics, and any other required skills identified by the Administrator will be put in place.

Minister Naledi Pandor has placed NSFAS under administration.

The Department reopened 2019 applications in early September 2018, but this would require that an effective plan for delivering student financial aid is in place, with the support and collaboration of universities and TVET colleges. It will also require an intensive communications campaign to inform all 2019 prospective students of the process for applications. Whether or not this goal is attainable remains to be seen.

The Minister has been in direct contact with the Board of NSFAS since before May 2018 in an effort to resolve funding disparities in the current academic year as well as those that go back even further than that.

The Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has been working for the past months with Parliament’s Committee of Higher Education and Training, bringing together leading tertiary education stakeholders, including student leadership. They have been trying to bring an end to years of outstanding, inaccurate and inconsistent funding promises that have left thousands of students without food and/or a place to stay, and the institutions of higher learning bearing the brunt of unpaid fees which they hope NSFAS will in time reimburse.

Ironically, the threatening possible upsurge of future campus unrest could result from the success of the Fees Must Fall movement, which resulted in former president Jacob Zuma authorising free tertiary education as his departing legacy.

One of the challenges facing the tertiary education funding sector is that legislation has not yet been promulgated to bring the NSFAS Act in line with the free education policy. The law covers student loans and debt, pending the process of legislating for the new system of bursaries and food and accommodation allowances.

The most recent meeting of the Higher Education and Training Committee at Parliament in August brought together representatives of NSFAS, the DHET, the South African Union of Students (SAUS), the South African Further Education and Training Student Association (SAFETSA) and the South African College Principals Organisation (SANCPO). Universities South Africa (USAf), although not represented at the meeting, has also been involved in the ongoing stakeholder collaboration.

The latest parliamentary Committee meeting was called shortly after the resignation of the NSFAS Chairperson and two additional members of the Board as well as the NSFAS chief executive officer, Steven Zwane, who had been appointed barely a year ago amid much hope that he would be able to get NSFAS back on track. Zwane’s departure came amid demands for his resignation from the National Education, Health and Allied Workers Union (NEHAWU).

It also follows the failure of a DHET Development Support Team consisting of financial aid experts from the TVET college and university sectors that had been deployed by the Department to visit individual institutions of higher education from 15 May to 30 June 2018.

The Committee made it clear at its August meeting that the Board’s progress report submitted on 3 August 2018 showed that there had not been adequate improvement since the Department’s Development Support Team had competed the task with which it had been mandated. This is despite NSFAS Board appointing a sub-committee to support the team.

Meanwhile, the Committee had made its own efforts to come to grips with the ongoing crisis in payments to technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges and the universities during 2016, 2017 and 2018. The Committee Chairperson, Connie September, announced that the committee had sent out two questionnaires to all 26 universities and 50 TVET colleges.

She said it had also investigated what provisions NSFAS was making for students with disabilities who face their own distinct challenges and require specific financial aid.

“Funding for students living with disabilities had to be fast tracked. These students were not able to study without assistive devices and could not be denied the right to fair chances of success,” said September.

Regarding the student population as a whole she said, “The funding decisions not finalised by NSFAS are impacting students negatively as they cannot receive their allowances and this affects the students’ academic performance.”

Based on its investigation of NSFAS delivery and the responses it had received to its questionnaire the Committee listed the following challenges in funding tertiary education institutions:

  • Disbursement reports to institutions and remittance advices were not received simultaneously which posed a challenge for institutions in terms of reconciliations and allocations to student accounts.
  • Late confirmation of students resulted in institutions having to carry the students’ allowances from their own funds until confirmation. A number of students remained unconfirmed and the risk remained that NSFAS might not confirm these students and institutions would remain with the debt.
  • No quality control mechanism was built into the NSFAS approval model.
  • There were instances in which the students did not meet the academic requirements but were given approval for funding assistance anyway.
  • Application forms for non-fees support had still not been approved, and students were struggling to get food and accommodation.
  • Loan Agreement Forms/Schedule of Particulars reports were not accurate, as they did not include all signed students.
  • Because the 2017 funding cycle was still not finalised, many eligible and funded 2017 students received their funding only in 2018. However, NSFAS had not been able to migrate these students to their 2018 funding cycle so these students were not reflected in any funding report. This caused major challenges for the institutions, as well as uncertainty amongst students.
  • The main challenges raised by the universities and TVET colleges were related to failure of the information technology (IT) systems.

September said the purpose of the Committee meeting was to get stakeholder response to its findings.

In reply, NSFAS said it had worked with the DHET and its Board had formed a Sub Committee to work alongside the Support Team and Management. It had also set in place a team to work on exceptions to address the issues that caused funding delays, conceding that several universities had “alerted us to the fact that NSFAS has in 2018 made funding offers to academically ineligible students. This matter was escalated to the ICT Exceptions Team for investigation and resolution.” Of even greater concern was NSFAS’s admission that its system uses a 40% pass rate, which differs from some universities. “We are investigating the cause of the misalignment and will apply necessary corrective measures.”

In its plans for driving the 2019 application and funding cycle, NSFAS said it plans to work closely with DHET and is already drafting MoUs to formalise engagements and SLAs with institutions. “We await further interaction with the Minister and DHET about how and when the application process will open.”

On the state of the backlogs in the payment of allocations to universities and disbursements to students, NSFAS reported that by June 2018, 50% of upfront payments had been made.

Asked what had been done to improve staff performance management and implement disciplinary policies, the NSFAS report stated that its HR department assists management in “consequences management and disciplinary processes. NSFAS management has in the recent past implemented such consequence management which resulted in warnings as well as dismissals of some employees for dereliction and performance amongst other issues.” The report added that two employees are currently undergoing disciplinary enquiries.

NSFAS confirmed that in 2017 it registered 300,095 university students and generated contracts for 94% of those, of which 98% were signed. Another 263,916 students were confirmed as registered at TVET Colleges and NSFAS had generated contracts for 98% of those registrations, 97% of which have been signed The students who were funded late in 2017 (the quintile 1, 2, 3 and SASSA beneficiaries) are being processed as part of the 2018 programme. All signatures were expected to be signed by a 31 August 2018 deadline after which date NSFAS will close the signing process and commence with reconciliation and 2017 final reports.

In 2018, 254,154 new students and 224,426 returning students were funded by NSFAS, but it reported numbers of registration that cannot be linked to students or that have not been signed by students. A few contracts are still being generated and others have not been linked to students or have been held up in the quality control process.

SAFETSA reported back to the Committee on its efforts to work closely with NSFAS to develop a clear understanding of the ongoing frustrations faced by NSFAS beneficiaries. It held a workshop with NSFAS in May 2018 to develop an understanding of the challenges facing NSFAS “so that we can work as a collective in trying to address them”.

The organisation reported on the need for direct contact with Student Representative Council members and said NSFAS needs to be decentralised instead of being run from its current single central office in Cape Town. The body told the Committee, “we want NSFAS to get closer to students and not [for the entity to] only operate at central level in Cape Town”.

SAFETSA wrote in its report for the Committee, “Our Marketing and Communications desk is currently working towards ensuring that we are accessible to students through social media platforms and further convince SRC members to be the custodians of this initiative at campus level. The intention is not for us to operate on a social platform but to use the influence of this popular social platform to get to know of students that are not funded on time and get to intervene immediately.”

It said there was a need for NSFAS to revise its procedures in the TVET colleges, proposing for example that “SRC’s be trained on how to work with this system and be the custodians of this important process.

“From where we are standing, there is no improvement and we believe that the stakeholder relations manager responsible for TVET should create the long-overdue direct communication between SRC members and the entity. Students are also not satisfied with the client service they are getting from NSFAS. The sooner we decentralise NSFAS the better [for] communication and administration.”

By Moira Levy

For more information visit the website of the Parliamentary Monitoring Group at https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/26844/?via=homepage-feature-card

Additional Info

  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Monday, 03 September 2018 18:19

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