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Tech glitches exclude needy students

The new centralised application system of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) that is being piloted at some universities is such a flop that it excluded 50 000 students from Unisa alone from getting funds.

This is just one of the system’s setbacks exposed in a confidential report seen by the Mail & Guardian. The document reveals that all five universities testing the system have been troubled by glitches.

The report details discussions of a workshop held at the University of Cape Town in April organised by Higher Education South Africa, the body that represent university vice-chancellors.

According to the report, Unisa sent the 50 000 applications to the NSFAS “and none of those applicants could be accounted for, even though [the] NSFAS had initially acknowledged receipt”.

The students applied for funding through Unisa, which transferred their forms to the NSFAS’s Cape Town office, as required.

All applicants excluded
Unisa this week confirmed that all the applicants had been excluded from the loan scheme.

“These students were not awarded loans. They had to seek alternative funding,” said Martin Ramotshela, the university’s spokesperson.

“Students were also advised to reapply during the next application phase that was in April 2014.”

According to the leaked document, Unisa “offered to assist NSFAS capture all the 50 000 applications”, but the scheme rejected this.

A helping hand
“The university is adamant that NSFAS lacks the proper systems, capacity and processes to successfully implement the pilot,” the report said of Unisa’s take on the agency. “It is clear that, in order for the system to work, NSFAS requires the assistance that has been offered by ­universities but not taken up.”

This week, Unisa would not be drawn on whether the NSFAS should scrap the model or not.

“The concept is good, although, like with any other concept, there would be room for improvement,” Ramotshela said.

“In this case, we believe it is the prerogative of [the] NSFAS to make a determination on the nature, timing and scope of such improvements.”

The students were among hundreds of thousands who could not get funding from the NSFAS. It funded only half of the students eligible for study loans and bursaries this year.

Internal failures
The report indicates that the funding shortfalls are a result of the body’s internal failures.

The Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University, another institution where the system is being piloted, blamed the NSFAS’s new system for excluding hundreds of its students.

Following a string of problems, “only 365 first-year students were successful in comparison with previous years where we had more than 600 students assisted”, the university’s spokesperson, Roslyn Baatjies, told the M&G.

The university received information from the NSFAS that showed that “many students with excellent [application] scores did not qualify for assistance”, Baatjies said. “Furthermore, applications of a number of senior students who applied for the first time for NSFAS were not captured due to missing boxes [of forms] sent to NSFAS.”

Baatjies said the NSFAS pilot project had “had a few successes” but, “unfortunately, the challenges outweigh the successes”.

Spreadsheets instead of technology
The cause of all the glitches “seemed” to be that the “NSFAS is relying on the use of spreadsheets rather than its IT [information technology] system to approve applications and make awards”, the Higher Education South Africa report said.

An NSFAS employee, who requested anonymity, confirmed they used spreadsheets and not advanced data-capturing technology.

A banking system introduced by the contractor, the auditing firm Deloitte, “is dismally failing”, he said.

He accused the scheme’s bosses of being “too proud to admit failure and [that they] are throwing more money into something that’s not working. Deloitte’s chief executive officer, Lwazi Bam, declined to comment, citing a “confidentiality agreement” with their client.

The NSFAS kicked off its ambitious new R102-million system this year and aims to roll out the project to all institutions by 2016. The scheme has R8.8-billion to distribute to students next year, including R3.9-billion for university student loans and R2.1-billion for college bursaries.

The NSFAS’s chief executive, Msulwa Daca, rejected all the claims made in the report, including that they could not account for the Unisa applications. He said the scheme had confidence in the system and would “announce further roll out plans later in the year”.

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

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