Student fund gets a human face

Changes: Steven Zwane, the new head of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, is turning things around at the fund. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Changes: Steven Zwane, the new head of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, is turning things around at the fund. (Photo: Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

The saga of the R14-million that was accidentally paid to a student at Walter Sisulu University (WSU) has knocked the image of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), even though the scheme had nothing to do with it, says its newly appointed chief executive, Steven Zwane.

The R14-million was paid by Intellimali, a company contracted by the university.

He says the scheme cannot stop institutions from partnering with service providers such as Intellimali, but the NSFAS is reviewing its service-level agreements with the institutions and demanding to know what controls they are putting in place if they are disbursing money through third parties.

“This is so we can have a recourse because right now we don’t have a recourse. As NSFAS, we have no recourse with regard to what happens between Intellimali and WSU, and we have no jurisdiction to tell WSU what to do because that relationship is not with us; it is with the institution,” he says.

There is a lot on his plate and a lot of fires to put out, but top of the list is to “tell the story” of the scheme through roadshows he has planned.

“I am a former beneficiary of NSFAS myself,” says Zwane, who did his BSc computer science degree at the University of Zululand. “I am a living testimony that without NSFAS I would have not received a degree.

“So having been a beneficiary, I think the story of NSFAS has not been fully told. We all look at the negative side of NSFAS and forget about the thousands of people whose lives have been transformed just because NSFAS gave them an opportunity to gain access to higher education.”

Zwane took over from acting chief executive Lerato Nage at the beginning of this month. The former chief executive, Msulwa Daca, left in January.

The NSFAS is turning 26 this year, Zwane says. “I would like to find 26 gems nationally and profile them and tell how NSFAS has transformed their lives and in the process give NSFAS a human face.

“For many years, we have never really given it the human face; we have just looked at it as the funding machine that must give out the money, but we have never looked at who is this beneficiary of NSFAS, where does she or he come from, and why is this vehicle so critical for their wellbeing. For me, that is the one thing I want to do.”

Zwane wants the “social transformation” the scheme has brought — and continues to bring — to the country to be seen.

The scheme disburses billions of rands to students annually, he says. “We fund 500 000 students annually and yet, if one student has a challenge, it looks like the whole system is falling apart and no one looks at how many are graduating every year on the back of the NSFAS funding.”

This year, the scheme is funding about 450 000 students on a budget of R15-billion.

Despite his charm offensive, Zwane admits the scheme has “challenges”.

This year, it introduced a “student-centred model” at five universities in which students apply directly to the NSFAS instead of going through the universities. The idea was to ease the administrative burden and for students to be paid timeously.

But this caused a great deal of unhappiness — and even protests — because some students did not receive their book, meal and transport allowances in time, and in some cases even their accommodation costs were not paid. By as late as May, some students claimed they had still not received what was due to them.

But Zwane says the new funding model is here to stay and, by 2020-2021, he wants it to be universal.

“With change comes a lot of discomfort; the student-centred model represented change in higher education funding. It was uncomfortable for the students and universities.”

He says the problems emanated from receiving the registration data from universities late and the scheme could not make payments to students if they did not know whether they had been registered.

These problems have meant that the scheme is finding ways to disburse the allowances without disadvantaging students and Zwane would like to see students being paid in advance.

“It’s a lot of work that we are thinking about and finding better ways of doing things,” he says.

Another problem is the recovery of loans from former beneficiaries. This was identified as a priority by NSFAS board chairperson Sizwe Nxasana when he took over in August 2015, and former beneficiaries were sent statements and SMSes reminding them of their debt to the NSFAS.

The scheme had been criticised for the poor recovery of debts, even from those who could afford to pay them.

Zwane says the NSFAS did not have the data of former beneficiaries and relied on universities to provide it.

“We don’t have enough of your records to be able to chase after you. We might not be able to reach out to you because you no longer use the cellphone number or email address that you provided us with. So now we want to use the ID number and give it to our partners, whether be it Sars [the South African Revenue Service] or home affairs, and get your right contact details, to chase after you.”

He could not say how much the scheme is owed by former beneficiaries but, in the past, more effort and resources were put into disbursing funds than into recovering them, which is now his responsibility to correct.

“We have hired a person that will be dedicated to recoveries … they are coming from a banking background and understand how recoveries work,” says Zwane, who was previously the chief operations officer of Barclays Africa.

He believes that putting a “human face” to the NSFAS will encourage people to pay back their loans because they will have a better understanding of where the funds are going.

Thousands of students are turned away every year because the NSFAS can’t afford to fund them. But Zwane is hoping to persuade South Africans to have faith in the scheme and even to donate to it.

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