The newly appointed chief executive of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS,) Andile Nongogo, has made a commitment that the scheme will deliver laptops to university students before the beginning of the academic year in March.
Nongogo said, over the past two weeks, NSFAS engaged with service providers appointed to procure the laptops to discuss the distribution processes, and the turnaround times for delivery.
He spoke at a media briefing by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande on Monday afternoon. In part, the briefing focused on the reopening of higher education institutions for the 2021 academic year.
In April, Nzimande announced interventions for dealing with Covid-19 in higher education institutions. Students who are Nsfas beneficiaries would be provided with laptops to continue with online learning.
In June, Nzimande said that, after discussions with the treasury, a decision had been taken to procure the laptops through a tender process, given the “huge amounts” involved.
“It is better to follow proper procedures than take short cuts, even if there is some delay, to properly account for the spending of taxpayers’ money,” he said at the time.
“We urge for patience from both parents, staff and students. As we had said, we are still committed that no student will be left behind in our effort to save the academic year.”
At this point, some institutions, particularly the affluent universities, began distributing laptops and providing data to their students so they could proceed with the 2020 academic year. These included the University of Cape Town, the University of Johannesburg, the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria.
These institutions have already completed the 2020 academic year, whereas the majority of the country’s 26 higher education institutions will complete it only this year.
In November, seven months after Nzimande announced the provision of laptops to NSFAS students, he announced that a laptop tender that had been advertised in September had been cancelled because none of the 140 bidders met the requirements. This meant a further delay to the process while institutions continued with online learning.
In July, the Mail & Guardian reported on the plight of students from the universities of Venda, Fort Hare and Zululand. At the time, the students said they were still waiting for laptops and data. Some of the students said they had received data but no laptops. Some said their lecturers were using WhatsApp for teaching and learning in the absence of laptops.
The South African Union of Students also raised concerns that students at historically disadvantaged institutions were “adversely affected”, because they did not receive laptops and data. In contrast, other institutions continued with online teaching and learning. The union demanded that students be provided with the devices urgently.
In the November briefing, Nzimande said another tender had been issued, and that five bidders had been appointed to deliver the laptops to students.
“The delay in providing these laptops is regrettable, and I want to assure the students that it was not intended, but it was very important to ensure that the procurement processes were followed strictly,” he said at the time.
There were, however, also allegations that the tender process had been delayed because of interference by some staff members in Nzimande’s office, who wanted to influence who received the tender. However, the minister’s office dismissed the allegations.
The portfolio committee on higher education, science and innovation also said that it had received allegations that there was an attempt to manipulate the process. However, last month, City Press reported that Nzimande rubbished the claims as the “sinister work” of senior officials in the higher education department.
Appearing before the portfolio committee on higher education in November to address several allegations raised about the former NSFAS administrator Randall Carolissen, the scheme’s spokesperson, Kagisho Mamabolo, said institutions had the capacity of handling the laptop tender on their own.
“So what is the need of this tender for laptops?” asked Mamabolo. “We are raising this as employees because we believe the decision to bring the laptop tender to NSFAS was bad judgment. It is actually an overreach.”
He added that this tender was outside the mandate of NSFAS, which is to provide and create systems through which funding can move from the scheme to the students.
He said the laptop tender had brought the organisation into disrepute and had damaged the brand “because we took something that does not fall within our mandate”.
At Monday’s briefing, Nzimande said NSFAS was currently finalising the implementation guidelines and that institutions would be consulted about these guidelines.
Nongogo said the minimum turnaround time for the delivery would be about five weeks; then the laptops would be distributed in batches to the institutions.
“We will have the first batches of the laptops delivered before the start of the 2021 academic year, which is March. Institutions for the 2020 academic year have had to find other solutions; therefore, our target is to make sure that the first batch is going to be delivered by the start of the 2021 academic year,” Nongogo said.
He said not all the students who qualify for the laptops would receive them “in one go” and that the scheme will prioritise those institutions that are most in need.
The scheme is currently talking with institutions about the laptops’ policies, such as warranties and/or a replacement in the case of damage, and how delivery to students will occur.
“Those are the mechanical details we are working on right now and, within the next two weeks, we will be issuing the guidelines, as well as the specific timelines, as to when the first batch will be delivered and to which institutions,” Nongogo said.