Nzimande: Funding squeeze on poor students to continue

The funds crunch that has seen thousands of poor students excluded from universities won’t be averted any time soon, higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande has said.

“Despite significant efforts to obtain additional funding, shortfalls are expected to continue. This will prevail until such time that the economic situation in the country changes to enable full support of all financially needy and academically deserving students.”

Nzimande was replying to written questions from Sipho Mbatha, member of the Economic Freedom Fighters, in Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education and training.

Citing the “recurring problem of shortage of funds for the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)”, Mbatha had asked Nzimande: “A, what is he planning to do to ensure that no student gets excluded for financial reasons from any university in South Africa and b, how many students have been excluded from universities as a result of their lack of funds.”

Nzimande admitted in his response that students have been excluded because of a lack of funds, and said the exclusion of others was their failure to meet academic requirements.

But he would not say how many students have been left out of NSFAS this year. “It is only after completion of the registration process that the number of academically eligible students excluded, due to unavailability of funds, will be available.”

Shortages and outrage
The Mail & Guardian has recently reported that 4 378 at the University of Johannesburg alone were not funded. These were returning students and those applying for the first time who met the NSFAS requirements.

Institutions including the Tshwane University of Technology, Vaal University of Technology, University of KwaZulu-Natal and Cape Peninsula University of Technology saw a wave of protests last month over the funding debacle.

But “in order to fully fund all poor and working-class university students”, allocated funds needed to increase to R36-billion from the current R4.094-billion, Nzimande revealed.

The public college bursary budget should increase to R15-billion to accommodate all qualifying ­students. Thus, R51-billion is required for both university and college students funding.

Nzimande said his department, as part of their three-year budget plans, had asked the treasury for the increase. “However, due to the prevailing fiscal environment the bid was not successful,” he added.

Limited state resources
“This bid focused on the increase required for NSFAS funding to assist financially and academically deserving university students, in line with the recommendations of the departmental working group on fee-free education and is supported by the resolutions of the 2012 [ANC] Mangaung conference.”

Though still glaringly insufficient, the NSFAS bursary and loan budget for university students increased from R1.561-billion in 2010/11 to the current R4.094-billion.

“This is no small feat in a hostile fiscal environment,” said Nzimande. “The department has over the past five years been working tirelessly to secure additional funding for ­academically poor students who are unable to access financial aid.”

Nzimande added he has received several allegations of fraud and corruption involving recipients of financial aid through NSFAS. He has ordered a full forensic investigation into this.

“Given the limited financial resources and the demand for financial aid from poor needy students, corruption and abuse of NSFAS resources not only deprives financially needy students of the opportunity for further study, but also threatens the stability of the entire higher education and training sector,” he said.

Appeal to the private sector
Repeating his appeal to private sector, Nzimande said: “The issue of financial aid must be viewed as a collective challenge.

“While government will need to source additional resources, business and the private sector need to invest in our youth as well.”

Nzimande’s comments come at a time a group of ­students calling themselves the Occupy Movement intermittently stage protests outside his department to demand he declares university education cost-free.

The students argue that NSFAS has “reached its sell-by date” as a viable funding model for poor students, and the only solution for poor students was a cost-free university education.

Jonas Magedi, who has led students to march on Nzimande under the banner of Occupy Movement, said it was misleading of the government to claim it didn’t have the R51-billion Nzimande says is needed for student funding.

“The man [Nzimande] must not tell us that he needs R51-billion and can’t find it. The state has that money. They spend it on consultants and credit cards.

“This is quite embarrassing for a country that’s emerged from apartheid and is now supposed to fight for the social improvement of our people. The government talks left and walk right. We’ve entered the stage of crises and we can’t remain silent anymore.”

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