/ 8 March 2019

Carolissen turns NSFAS around in six months

Expert call: Randall Carolissen has put the financial aid scheme for students back on track.
Expert call: Randall Carolissen was seconded from the South African Revenue Service in August 2018 by then higher education minister Naledi Pandor. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

When National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) administrator Dr Randall Carolissen walked into the job six months ago, he found an organisation with an IT system that crashed every night, staff who approved student payments from their homes and no governing policies.

Carolissen, a group executive of tax analysis at the South African Revenue Service (Sars), was roped in by Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor in August 2018 to assist the troubled scheme after it had failed to pay student allowances for eight months, leading to numerous protests from university and college students.

They had gone for many months without food and book allowances, their accommodation was not paid and others hadn’t received their transport allowances. In short, they were angry.

Among other things, Carolissen had to ensure that students were paid their outstanding allowances, oversee the opening of applications for this year and address the scheme’s operational challenges. Systems had to be put in place to ensure stability at NSFAS.

“I was reluctant at first, because I did not know what the problems were. I [had] read about the problems in the papers,” Carolissen told the Mail & Guardian.

“A lot of people warned me that: ‘Look, that thing is such a mess, you’re going to destroy your career.’ ” But, in the interests of social justice and to understand the important role that NSFAS plays in granting poor people access to higher education, Carolissen decided to take up the challenge.

He came in after businessman and former FirstRand chief executive, Sizwe Nxasana, who had been the scheme’s chairperson since 2015, resigned from the position.

Carolissen said that, when he first arrived at the scheme, he realised that the extent of the problem was far worse than what the media had revealed.

“When I got there the systems didn’t work, they crashed every night, the staff morale was extremely low and public trust was destroyed … There was no governance in place, approvals were made on the spot, people working on the systems took their computers home and disbursed money. That’s the type of environment I walked into,” he said.

“The data integrity was all messed up, nobody knew what the correct data was. No one knew which students needed to receive how much; it was all a mess.”

Carolissen said he realised really quickly that he needed to find a way to make the biggest possible impact. The mission was clear — get money to the students and bring stability to the organisation.

He came in at the time when the National Health Education and Allied Workers Union (Nehawu) had been calling for then chief executive Steven Zwane to resign from the scheme. Nehawu blamed Zwane and Nxasana for the mess at NSFAS.

Carolissen told the M&G that, on his first day at his new office, he spoke to Zwane and told him that they needed to part ways. “I didn’t want somebody obstructing me from doing what I needed to do.” Zwane resigned in October last year.

In the first week on the job, Carolissen said he brought in a data expert who examined the quality of the data and fixed it. He then sat down with the team of other experts he had brought in and they did a “deep root analysis” of the problems to determine what the issues were. They discovered that, at the beginning of 2018, NSFAS had paid R11-billion to institutions that could not pay the money to students, because they did not know who to pay. Because of its data mess, NSFAS had simply not provided them with the list of students who needed to be paid.

“So some of the students got the money prior to August 2018, because some universities and TVET colleges figured it out themselves who should be paid … R11-billion was [still] sitting there with the institutions. And so we unlocked the R11-billion and money went to students,” he said.

The systems at NSFAS have not crashed in four months. It is now able to share data with institutions so they can see who has been approved for funding. The scheme can also determine which students have been registered. And, for the first time ever, most students got their allowances on time in February.

“I was able to do that in six months, not because I’m some magician but [because] I was able to bring [in] experts from outside to assist me,” Carolissen said. He employed IT, financial, HR and governance experts to help him to turn NSFAS around.

He said he has also launched a forensic investigation into the scheme, which has already uncovered evidence of fraud and corruption. A number of people have been suspended as a result.

“I will definitely make sure that they are going to be charged, because we are talking about billions of rands that I cannot account for,” Carolissen said, adding that he was hoping the investigation would be concluded by the middle of the year.

Despite all the gains made, Carolissen admits there is still an enormous amount of work that needs to be done at the scheme to stabilise it. One of the larger mandates is to redesign NSFAS.

“I am keeping an open mind about everything. Over the past six months I’m seeing things that are driving my thinking in a particular direction. After March, once all the monies have been stabilised, we will be spending time interrogating all the decisions that have been made in the past in terms of policies, and that’s the only way of doing it actually, to keep an open mind about things.

“I have certain ideas already about how NSFAS should look like in the future, and the NSFAS of the future should not just be an ATM that dishes out money, but a vehicle for success for our students and for delivering on the country’s skills needs. But I’m keeping an open mind.”

He and Pandor are in talks to extend his one-year contract, due to end in August, because there is still a lot of work to be done.