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No money to fund first-time university students, Nzimande says

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is experiencing a funding shortfall for the 2021 academic year. That is why it has not yet responded to requests for funding from new university students. 

For the 2021 academic year, the scheme has received 790 000 new applications. In February, NSFAS said this was an unprecedented number compared to previous years. 

This year the scheme aims to fund about 1.3-million undergraduate university students and almost one million technical and vocational education and training college students.  

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande provided these details at a media briefing on Monday afternoon.

Nzimande acknowledged the anxiety experienced by prospective students and their families. He said universities were also under pressure, because they were unable to finalise their admissions and registration processes. 

However, he said: “In terms of the laws and policies regulating the public finances for departments and entities, including the Public Finance Management Act, NSFAS is not able to commit to funding students without the requisite budget available to support this commitment.”

Solutions urgently needed

Nzimande has said that his department and the treasury have been working on funding options to be detailed in the medium-term budget policy statement. On Wednesday, these options will be presented to the cabinet for consideration. 

“We are doing everything possible to resolve this issue as a matter of extreme urgency,” the minister said. 

In recent weeks students — not only new university students, but also returning students — have voiced their frustration about the scheme’s lack of communication on their funding status. 

Their frustration was further exacerbated because many institutions’ registration period closed last week or will do so this week. 

But on Monday, Nzimande said he has agreed with universities to extend the registration period for first-time students by two weeks to ensure they are not disadvantaged by the NSFAS delay. 

Nzimande said part of the scheme’s shortfall was because NSFAS had continued pay allowances even when universities were closed during lockdown, to ensure that students could access online teaching and learning. 

“This means we had an extended academic year, which we did not allocate additional money for,” he said. 

At a parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education sitting in July, NSFAS estimated that it would require more than R4.3-billion to cover the costs of the extended academic year costs at universities and technical and vocational education and training colleges. 

Nzimande also said that the dire economic situation caused by Covid-19 meant that students who previously did not qualify for funding may now do if their parents had lost their jobs. 

Returning students 

Last week, the Mail & Guardian reported on students who still owe institutions thousands of rands and will not be able to register before they repay their debt. 

One of the students, Yoliswa Dlamini, a final-year LLB student funded by NSFAS at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, owes R16 886. Registration at the university closed on Friday, and she had not registered by then. 

However, Nzimande said all returning students who are beneficiaries would be funded this year, provided they meet all the relevant criteria. 

“In this regard, the usual processes apply, whereby institutions share the relevant registration data and information with NSFAS, which is then able to confirm the funded lists of students with institutions,” he said.

Nzimande has said that he will hold a detailed media briefing later this week after the cabinet deliberations, which would provide a way forward for student funding.

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

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