NSFAS assistance is a debt trap, students claim

Many students believe that NSFAS is a flawed system. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé)

Many students believe that NSFAS is a flawed system. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé)

As the government scrambles to provide funding for a burgeoning student population, relying heavily on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), students have described it as a “flawed” system that puts impoverished students in an even more precarious financial position.

“The main issue with NSFAS is that, instead of providing financial assistance to those who are economically limping, it puts further pressure on these individuals who are really not of the means to pay off a loan,” said Kaamil Alli, the deputy secretary general of the students’ representative council of the University of the Witwatersrand.

“Dealing with hundreds of students who experience difficulty with the system has really exposed the flawed system and is a driving force behind the call for #FeesMustFall,” he said.

The #FeesMustFall movement says it is “as ready as the state and universities claim to be” and will “imagine new ways of applying pressure and engaging society on the necessity of free education”.

The movement is also intent on galvanising the new intake of students to serve the cause, said Sinawo Thambo, the #FeesMustFall spokesperson at the University of Cape Town.

According to Alli, many students involved in the movement are completing exams that were deferred as a result of the protests at the end of last year and they are reconsidering protest tactics in 2017.

“We can’t think that the way we have done things in the past will work. We must adapt to the material conditions.”

On Thursday, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande said NSFAS will provide R15.2-billion in student loans this year.

The government scheme to subsidise students has been criticised for creating a debt trap for the students it funds and for disregarding the needs of the “missing middle”, those students whose household annual income bracket goes up to R600 000 and hence are considered “too rich” for NSFAS.

In November, the Ikusasa Student Financial Aid Scheme was introduced to address this need and will be rolled out this year, with the department of higher education and training budgeting R200-million to fund 2 000 students studying for scarce skills professions.

But Alli is not impressed by it.
“The new system doesn’t in any way improve the everyday life of a poor student. This, coupled with the serious maladministration and poor facilitation of the process, all contribute to the overall failure of the system.”

As the 2017 academic year kicks off, many students remain uncertain about the result of their applications. One of them is 20-year-old Nathi Dass, who received NSFAS funding last year but has yet to hear about the outcome of his application this year.

“They haven’t responded. My mother is a retired nurse and can’t afford the exorbitant fees at [Rhodes] university,” he said.

“It’s really surprising and saddening that, especially after the last two years of protests, NSFAS would sit on their laurels. They have got hundreds, maybe thousands, of students pausing their entire lives just waiting for an email.”

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamobolo said, although it is “true that there are students who have not yet received feedback on their applications”, all students will “eventually receive communication regarding their respective applications”.

Demand for assistance from the scheme remains high. NSFAS funded 400 000 students in the 2016 academic year to the tune of R10-billion. With the previous year’s matric class being the largest contingent in years, NSFAS is expecting more applications this year than before, according to Mamobolo.

He said one of the difficulties the scheme faces is the refusal by students at some institutions to sign their loan-agreement forms as a form of protest, resulting in their tuition fees not being paid on time.

In a speech on Thursday, Nzimande said the registration fees of NSFAS students would be subsidised. Students who come from households that earn R50 000 or less a month would also not have to pay a fee increase in 2017. The same goes for NSFAS students.

“Those who will pay a fee increase capped at 8% are those who can afford [to] and those who come from rich families,” he said.

The minister said processes are underway to find long-term solutions to the fees crisis, and that the fees commission, established at the behest of the president, will present its findings later this year.

The ministry has not outlined other long-term plans regarding fees, and students last year disrupted the fees commission, saying it was not addressing their demands for free education.

Wits University is heading for a deficit for the first time in 11 years.

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra'eesa Pather

Ra’eesa Pather is a general news journalist with the Mail & Guardian’s online team. She cut her teeth at The Daily Vox in Cape Town before moving to Johannesburg and joining the M&G. She's written about memory, race and gender in columns and features, and has dabbled in photography.
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