More bursary millions unspent

It was déjà vu again when at least 1 500 students were denied access to higher learning last year because universities had failed to allocate almost R50-million in state money intended for bursaries.

This echoes the previous year’s state of affairs ­- in 2008 the Mail & Guardian reported that R50-million allocated by government for loans to poor students went unused in 2007.

One of the offending institutions, the Durban University of Technology (DUT), was hit by a massive student strike last year over fee exclusions. DUT failed to hand out R14-million of a total of R107-million available for fee support. The university experienced student unrest over fee exclusions and fee increases again at the beginning of this year.

Unused money is returned to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which provides bursaries of up to R35 000.
The unspent funds could have paid the fees of more than 1 500 university students.

FET colleges failed to allocate R95-million last year, and universities underspent by R50-million.

The shortfall is highlighted in a joint report compiled by the parliamentary committees on basic education and higher education and training, which the M&G has seen.

The committees toured the NSFAS offices in Cape Town in July and found that the scheme faces a range of problems, including the fact that poor rural students find it difficult to access the offices and that the two weeks set aside for student registrations are too short.

Universities allocate NSFAS loans to students based on a means test.

The report shows that amounts allocated to universities for student loans increased from R1-billion in 2006 to R1,7-billion last year. But, of the 23 government-funded universities, only nine managed to use their NSFAS allocations in full. These included Stellenbosch and Wits universities.

Among the offending institutions were the University of Venda and Fort Hare University, which failed to spend R5-million and R3-million respectively.

The chairperson of Parliament’s higher education committee, Marius Fransman, lambasted the NSFAS for failing to enable communication between the scheme, universities and students.

“It is unacceptable that there are no systems between universities and the NSFAS. In the past three years we have seen a lot of leadership changes at NSFAS and that is not [right],” said Fransman.

The report noted that a ministerial review of the NSFAS is under way.

According to the NSFAS budget report to the committees for 2009, “unspent funds and recovered funds [loan repayments] are a result of late reporting by universities on the uptake of funds, which prevented the scheme from redistributing the balance within the 2008 academic year”.

The committees have requested reports on students who have benefited from the NSFAS system for the past three years and research on what impedes access to the scheme.

The report urged the NSFAS to ensure that rural high schools in particular are properly informed about the scheme.

DUT spokesperson Nomonde Mbadi said additional funding applications were received late last year. The closing date for NSFAS allocations is early in January.

“Many of the students who did not take up their funding in 2008 were away on in-service training and were unable to finalise their loan agreement forms for submission to NSFAS,” said Mbadi.

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