/ 25 May 2018

Payment delays anger students

Delayed payments only affected fees and not allowances and stipends
Delayed payments only affected fees and not allowances and stipends

Students are gearing up to write their mid-year exams but about 110 000 of them, nearly half of those who have been approved for bursaries and grants by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), have still not received their funding.

To date, NSFAS has confirmed funding for 233 991 first-time and continuing students at universities and colleges. But 110 756 students have not received the funds because their institutions have not provided information confirming whether they are registered to study for the 2018 academic year.

The higher education department acknow-ledges that the announcement late last year of free tertiary education for first years by then-president Jacob Zuma has exacerbated matters.

“I think the lateness of the announcement — it was in December and applications are usually finalised by August/September — you had a situation where NSFAS was suddenly faced with new applicants at a very late stage and had to process them,” Higher Education and Training Minister Naledi Pandor said. The administrative burden of implementing the new policy had also caused “significant challenges” for the NSFAS.

The delays have culminated in student protests. In March, students at the Durban University of Technology’s Steve Biko campus disrupted classes and damaged property because of unpaid allowances for food and textbooks, News24 reported. In the same month, classes were suspended at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Westville campus because of student protests about poor conditions at residences and delayed NSFAS payments.

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Earlier this month, students at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth took to the streets because of unpaid allowances. Students at Maluti college in the Free State torched about five vehicles and set fire to office buildings this weekend. The students are demanding that the principal step down because of alleged corruption, as well as delays in NSFAS payments.

At the University of Limpopo, exams were disrupted this week by students protesting about outsourcing and outstanding accommodation payments from the NSFAS. A final-year computer sciences student from Nelspruit, who wanted to remain anonymous, said his landlord kicked him out because he could not pay rent at the end of April.

“I’m stressed because I don’t know if I’ll be able to go home and, if I can’t go home, where I am going to stay,” he said. “I can’t study not knowing what’s going to happen next.”

NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo said backlogs were inherent in the system. “The turnaround time is between the closing of registration, compiling the list of registration and submitting it to NSFAS, and the time NSFAS takes to validate the submitted list and confirm funding. Both processes are dependent on each other. If no data is received, no funding decision can be finalised.”

Delayed payments only affected fees and not allowances and stipends (food, textbooks, accommodation and transport). He said NSFAS had made upfront payments of R4.9-billion to universities and R1.5-billion to colleges for allowances to cover the period January to May.

“The payment of upfronts and allowances to NSFAS students were made outside of the system and were never dependent on the signing of the bursary agreement,” Mamabolo said. “[The] instruction was given that the payment was meant for stipends. If the institutions did not follow the NSFAS instructions, we have to look at that and understand the reasons.”

University of Limpopo vice-chancellor Mahlo Mokgalong said the university was not aware of any students who had been evicted and the university had made arrangements with landlords.

He said the university received a payment from NSFAS for accommodation allowances last week, which would be processed by the end of this week.

“It’s a general problem through the sector where NSFAS makes late payment to institutions,” he said.

The university’s financial officer, Mamokgadi Masete, said the problem was that most of the time universities had to “bankroll” NSFAS and then claim back the money. But payments were dependent on the university’s cash flow. “Sometimes we don’t have [enough money].”

Pandor said she was dismayed by the number of students who had not yet received funding and the department had put a team together to work with NSFAS “to ensure that we resolve this problem”. The team is expected to report back to the minister by the end of May.

Tebogo Tshwane is an Adamela Trust financial reporter at the Mail & Guardian