‘Students can’t all expect to get loans’

Rather than fixing an enduring university funding shortfall, the government instead now wants to “manage expectations” among needy students that its study loans are available to all.

The department of higher education and training first admitted in 2010 that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was facing a crippling shortage of funds. It now wants excluded students to accept that the scheme will not have enough funds anytime soon.

Stoking fires
Protests broke out at a number of universities at the beginning of this year, after hundreds of students learned there were no funds for them, and the issue is likely to stoke fires at campuses again in 2015.

Diane Parker, an acting deputy director general at the department, is heard in an audio recording of a recent National Assembly portfolio committee meeting as saying a workshop would be held to discuss how to manage funding expectations.

“The issue of shortfall is something that will be with us for quite a while. We’re aware of the fiscal situation and … [that] we need to manage this,” Parker told the meeting. “The department together with NSFAS and Higher Education SA will have a workshop quite soon at which we’re going to be looking at … how we manage it, and particularly manage the expectations going into the next registration period. “There is a need for understanding the system – and particularly by students – that the funding is limited but it is provided in order to create access.”

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s department lists “ensur[ing] that academically deserving students access further and higher education through funding from NSFAS” as one of its “strategic objectives”.

Inequalities of the past
It describes the NSFAS as a loan and bursary scheme established “in order to address the rising student debt problem in higher education institutions and to give effect to the government’s commitment to redressing the inequities of the past”.

The scheme has provided university finance to 1.4-million South Africans since 1999. But its shortage of funds – even after they tripled from R3.1-billion in 2009 to just over R9-billion in 2014 – now threatens to exclude thousands.

It is funding 430 000 students this year. But the Democratic Alliance has argued it left out half of the qualifying student population. A departmental “legacy” report submitted to the National Assembly shows that universities reported a shortfall of R2.6-billion on their 2013 allocation for all qualifying NSFAS students.

Some universities recovered this money from the 2014 allocations, and turned away thousands of students.

Demand outstrips available funds
The report states: “Many deserving returning and first-year students are unable to register due to insufficient NSFAS funding. The demand for financial assistance far outstrips the available funds.”

Some Unisa students have complained they are the latest to be excluded from tertiary education because of the funding crisis.

Phumzile Mtshali, a Durban-based Unisa student, told the Mail & Guardian that the NSFAS has just rejected her application, citing a lack of funds. “The worse part is that, if I’m not getting funding right now, I won’t be studying this semester,” she said. “The NSFAS receives billions of rands during the year, but they still tell us about insufficient funds.”

Revealing that the ANC resolved at its last national lekgotla that the NSFAS shortfall should be reversed, Ntuthuko Makhombothi, president of the ANC-aligned South African Students’ Congress, said the department’s utterances were “toxic” and “insensitive to the situation … students are facing. The department should be … unlocking resources.”

“We were excited that the ANC agreed the shortfall should be addressed. It’s problematic that there can be pronouncements by the ANC, and different pronouncements by the government.”

Kefilwe Makhanya, the department’s spokesperson, said “there is no contradiction”. Although it was the department’s ultimate goal to provide enough funds, “the levels of funding required to ensure this ultimate outcome are currently out of reach”, she said.

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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