/ 12 April 2021

Student funding scheme drops Wits law students

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University of Witwatersrand students doing the three-year law programme say they are stunned and fear for their futures after an email from the university informed them that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would not fund their studies in 2021 and in the future. 

The students were also told that their 2020 funding had been revoked, and they owed Wits the tuition fees, allowances and accommodation costs. 

The bombshell was dropped on the students in the last week of March. 

The email said: “NSFAS indicated that the reason for this exclusion is due to the fact that students who started from their second year, carry no credits over and it exceeds more than two years of expected study … You [are therefore advised] to apply for alternative funding to cover your studies.” 

The students did an undergraduate degree before they were accepted into the law degree.

Students said last week that over the years, NSFAS has funded students studying for this programme. 

The Mail & Guardian asked why the decision was communicated to the students so late, and if there was an option to phase out funding instead of abruptly ending it. NSFAS told the M&G to direct its questions to the department of higher education, science and innovation because it decided which programmes would be funded. 

Department spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi referred the M&G to the guidelines NSFAS uses to determine funding. He said the scheme worked directly with universities, and it should have been able to clarify agreements it had with the individual institutions. 

According to the guidelines, a university student is eligible for funding for one undergraduate qualification. An exception is made to students who have a higher certificate and go on to study towards a diploma or degree. 

The guidelines were approved by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande last month. The guidelines also state that students who are in the middle of their postgraduate degrees and were approved for funding last year — and who are academically eligible — will continue to be funded. 

This does not explain why NSFAS told Wits that it had revoked funding for the postgraduate LLB for 2020, and that students would no longer be funded. 

Wits spokesperson Buhle Zuma said the university was scheduled to meet NSFAS this week. “Wits University hopes that this meeting will shed light on the status of the current cohort,” said Zuma. 

Meanwhile, the students remain in limbo. They have created a WhatsApp group called “Defunded by NSFAS”, which has 117 members. 

One student, Hellmann Hlokuma, said that what baffled him was that the decision came from “nowhere” and was only communicated at the end of March.  

“At least if it was communicated to us last year to say ‘going forward, please find another way to pay for your studies’, we would have had sufficient time to apply for bursaries and try to find funding from elsewhere. But we have been told that funding institutions have closed their doors,” he said. 

Hlokuma is in his second year of the LLB programme. He said the explanation given in the email did not make sense. 

“When I read that email I was so shocked. I thought ‘man, no, this is a joke’ because it did not make sense. When you get approved for NSFAS you get approval on the basis that financially you cannot afford your studies, and in the agreement you get told that you are going to be funded for the duration of your degree. And for them to now turn back … I would understand if they said ‘if you fail your modules we will not fund you’, but not to disadvantage us like this,” said Hlomuka. 

He said that after receiving the email from Wits, he logged into his NSFAS profile and found that it was no longer available. “It  was as if I never had a profile, I could not log in. It was as if I was completely wiped off the system.”

Hlomuka said he had been able to apply for one bursary that was still open last month, but there was no guarantee he would be successful. “What breaks my heart is that there are so many others like me, so what are the chances of me getting the funding, bearing in mind that I am also applying late.” 

Hlomuka’s family survives on his mother’s old age grant. He does part-time work In December to augment that income. His father died when he was 16. 

Hlomuka has to start applying at law firms to do his articles but he cannot do that without an academic transcript, which he will not get if his fees are not paid. 

“I am already preempting a challenge that I am going to face later on in life. NSFAS  literally invalidated so many experiences of so many students who have earned their spot in the university,” he said.

The M&G reported last week that past university students who have outstanding fees dating back to 2010 are yet to receive their qualification certificates and cannot get access to their academic records. 

In reply to a parliamentary question in March, Nzimande said that between 2010 and 2020, more than 100 000 former students were yet to receive their qualification certificates. The total in outstanding fees for those students is more than R10-billion, according to submissions made by 21 of the country’s 26 universities. 

Vuyolwethu Budu is stuck in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape and cannot make her way back to Johannesburg if she does not have funding from NSFAS. She will not be able to afford accommodation or study costs. 

On Tuesday, she had to travel to town and pay to sit at an internet cafe to finish writing a test online because the network connection in her village is bad. 

“It is very difficult because I cannot find accommodation in Johannesburg without funding. I was staying on campus,” she said. 

After receiving the email alerting her that she was no longer funded by NSFAS, Budu  called the organisation’s offices, but said the calls were not going through. She said she also called the fees’ office at Wits and was told that the appeal process for NSFAS was only open for first year students. 

“At this point I really do not know what to do,” she said.

NSFAS funded her BA general degree and approved her application for 2020 and 2021. She currently owes Wits about R200 000 — money that NSFAS is yet to pay. 

“This is a very difficult situation for me because I know that there is no way I will be able to raise the money that I owe. The only person who is working at home is my dad, who is a security guard, so there is literally nothing he can do,” said Budu.