Students outraged at drying-up NSFAS funds

Pinky Phosa, the chairperson of the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education and training, has appealed to thousands of unfunded university students to return to their respective homes as a way of averting humanitarian crises and conflict on campuses. 

During a committee session held at the volatile Soshanguve campus of the Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) on Thursday, Phosa posed some questions to the institution’s student representative council (SRC) about how it expected students who were under debt and who lacked funding to be absorbed into the university. 

Student protest erupted at the township-based campus this week over insufficient funding by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). 

The SRC estimates over 20 000 returning students across the university’s six campuses have been excluded, a predicament compounded by NSFAS’s decision to cut allocations to the institution. 

Thousands of students owe the institution fees because they weren’t funded in previous academic years and are now barred from registration. 

Students at institutions including the Vaal University of Technology, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Venda and the Walter Sisulu University are also facing the same predicament. 

“There’s no money, and you’re saying [the university must] take all of them. They are going to suffer. You’re making them suffer,” Phosa told the SRC leaders, largely directing her message to Tsholofelo Modise – president of the structure. 

“How does the university use money it doesn’t have? One of the principles of accounting is that you don’t use money you don’t have.”

Phosa, who is representing the ruling ANC in Parliament, relayed how the committee recently went to a university in which members learnt that 13 students were sharing a single room. 

She said it was both male and female students sleeping in one room, and barely had food. The parliamentarians learnt that some females fell pregnant and dropped out, she said. 

“Is that what you want to see?” she asked Modise. 

“The girls [could] submit themselves to prostitution … to find money because there’s no money. Is that what you want? I want us to be practical, not emotional. It’s better they go home.”

“Those students that cannot be accepted, let them go home. They will be safe there. We don’t want our girls to be raped. If we say all must be absorbed, we must be practical here.”

Emotional blackmail
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the sidelines of the session, Modise dismissed Phosa’s advice that unfunded students should go home as “nonsense”.

“I’m not going to transmit that message [to the excluded students]. That is a non-starter. For a Member of Parliament who earns over R70 000 [a month] that is a luxury that she can afford to say.”

He said Phosa’s lecture to the SRC proposing that unfunded students face the spectre of poor accommodation, poverty, rape and prostitution was tantamount to emotional blackmail.  

“Those things have been happening already. They’ve been in government for over 20 years and have done nothing about it, now she tells me I should feel guilt about it,” said Modise.  

“Majority of the students that I’m leading in this university don’t have running water [in accommodation they rent around Soshanguve], they don’t have access to electricity, and they don’t have the basic comforts that people in the cities take for granted. Those are the students we are serving and we’re going to be true to them.”

“I’m not a decision-maker. I’m not in power. They are turning the levers of state, not me. I’m mandated by the students, and so I have a political and moral obligation to represent my students to the best of my ability.”

The portfolio committee sitting was almost abandoned when a group of chanting students stormed it, threatening to disrupt it if they were not listened to.

During the short-lived commotion, a student of this group introduced himself to the committee as Mxolisi Maisela and started delivering his impromptu oration.  

“The money you’re expecting from us, we don’t have it.”

“All of us must be able to register. Our debts of last year must be cancelled. If you do not have answers, [higher education and training minister] Blade Nzimande must come here and tell us what must happen.” he said. 

He told the meeting as chairperson of the Pan-Africanist Student Movement of Azania in Gauteng” “[I am] happy I’m being listened to for the first time.” 

Police escorted this group out of the session. 

Student debt has doubled
Belinda Bozzoli, member of the Democratic Alliance in the portfolio committee, cautioned universities against admitting unfunded and indebted students.

“I understand student debt [at this institution] has doubled in the past two years. You cant just brush aside sustainability of the university. The overall funding to universities per student has gone down. If they let everyone who owes, that’s the end of the university.”

Lourens van Staden, the university’s acting vice-chancellor, told the meeting that student debt now stood at almost R150-million. 

“It is a dramatic increase. This is shocking.”

After the session Phosa reiterated to the M&G her advice to students to go home was a sensible solution. “All I’m advising is: let’s be practical,” she said.

“I want us to be practical and find practical solutions for nation building. Even in your own house when it is full and you force matters to have more people, there will be disorganisation in that house. There would be a crisis in terms of where do people sleep and eat.

“In this particular case … students will find themselves without food and you’ll find 13 people sleeping in one room.” she restated. 

“To me, that’s punishment. If you don’t have even a place where you can rest, study and write your assignments at night, that is a recipe for failure. Much as we’re concerned about the high drop-out rate at universities, it could be coming from situations where you’ve got students who don’t have accommodation.” 

She urged students to “exercise patience” and apply for the next year. “This government means well, this government wants everybody to go through tertiary education. But then let’s take it one step at a time.”

Government must bail students out
Msulwa Daca, the chief executive of NSFAS, confirmed to the session that the scheme has decreased allocation to TUT this year. He said increased funding last year was due to special funding arrangements, which were no longer in place this year. 

But Modise asked: “How do you explain someone moving funding from R633-million [to 475-million]? Over R158-million has been chopped in the last two months.”

“We actually need a total of R900-million of student funding to function as an institution.  What are they giving us? They are giving us just more or less 50% of what we actually require.”

Modise called on the government to make a loan from one of the international development banks and bail students out. “When government doesn’t have money it has capacity to go and make loans.” he said.  

“We’re saying the South African Airways (SAA) has been faltering in terms of financial performance for almost the entire period since the university mergers [in 2004]. Year in, year out they’ve been bailing them out.”

“What is different about us? Between SAA and the largest contact university [TUT] in the republic, which one has a greater social impact? These are questions that South Africans must begin to ask,” he said. 

Modise said the government was just chasing a pipe dream if it hoped established firms would heed its call to help fund poor black students. 

“You cannot come here and tell me that you still need to go and attract big business. They will never [come to the table]. They are comfortable putting money to previously advantaged institutions.”

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

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