The student funding scheme changes lives – it’s too important to fail

Last week, the minister of higher education, science and innovation, Blade Nzimande, published a notice in the Government Gazette calling for people to be nominated to serve on the board of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). 

By law Nzimande has to appoint 13 members to serve on the board, and the nominations being called for are for four members to make up the 18-member board that is to serve for four years. 

Just like many black South African’s who came from poor and working class families who did not have the means to pay for their tertiary education, I too, I am a beneficiary of NSFAS. 

My mother worked as a cleaner and would have not been able to pay for my university studies even if she wanted to. 

I was able to go to university because my father, a teacher, stretched his salary between me and my siblings and managed to see me through university for the first semester of my first year. In the second semester I got funding from the NSFAS, which continued until I completed my studies. Had it not been the intervention of NSFAS I doubt my father would have managed to see me through my studies. 

My story is not unique. Many black South Africans have a similar story to mine — and worse. But we were fortunate to have had a lifeline from NSFAS. 

It is through the funding that some, like myself, were able to build homes for our families and move out of backrooms and shacks. People have been able to change the living conditions of their younger siblings and provide them with better opportunities than they had. That is the effect NSFAS has had on many lives. 

It is with this background in my mind that I say NSFAS deserves solid leaders who will see it continue to change the lives of millions of South Africans who were not born into privilege and without NSFAS would have never seen the doors of higher education institutions. 

For years the scheme has been marred with controversy. Some previous chief executives left the scheme under a cloud. Three years ago the scheme announced the sudden resignation of Msulwa Daca. This meant that the chairperson of the board, Sizwe Nxasana, had to run the whole show. But Nxasana also resigned and Steven Zwane was appointed as chief executive. But he was suspended after just 10 months in the job. 

Naledi Pandor, then the minister of higher education, appointed an administrator, Randall Carolissen, to bring stability to NSFAS because the scheme was failing in its mandate. For example, students were going for months without receiving their allowances. NSFAS is now in the process of appointing a new chief executive and a board. 

It is my wish — as a NSFAS beneficiary — that the scheme is led by selfless women and men who will not lose sight of the crucial role the scheme plays in this country. 

We need a NSFAS that is run effectively and efficiently to serve the poor and working class young people who want to change their lives through education.

Whoever gets to serve in these critical positions, whoever gets to put up their hand to serve on the board, must never lose sight of how important an institution NSFAS is. We need people who are going to lead a NSFAS that is not going to be in the spotlight for maladministration, fraud and incompetence, which overshadows the good that the scheme does. We really need and deserve a NSFAS that works. 

Again, NSFAS is too much of an important institution to be left in the hands of people whose heart is not it.

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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