Funding bombshell leaves law students in limbo

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has, for two weeks, not answered why it is no longer fund the three-year law degree at the University of Witwatersrand — and why it revoked funding for the 2020 academic year after this had been approved.

Wits sent students notices stating that they were liable for the tuition fees, allowance and accommodation costs of 2020. The bombshell was dropped on the students during the last week of March.

At first NSFAS said the department of higher education, science and innovation needed to respond to the queries because it decided what programmes would be funded. But the department said NSFAS should account for the decision because the department does not communicate with individual universities.

Department spokesperson Ishmael Mnisi also referred the Mail & Guardian to the guidelines NSFAS uses to determine funding. These were approved last month by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande. According to the guidelines, students who are in the middle of their postgraduate degrees and were approved for funding the previous year — and who are academically eligible — will continue to be funded.

The guidelines also state that a student is eligible for funding for one undergraduate qualification. An exception is made for students who have a higher certificate and go on to study towards a diploma or degree.

Students doing the LLB degree at Wits had to study for an undergraduate degree first before they could be accepted on the law course. The M&G is yet to receive a response from NSFAS on what criteria or guidelines it used to revoke the students’ 2020 funding.

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 what baffled him was that the decision “came from nowhere” and was only communicated to them 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 law degree. The only source of income at his home is his mother’s older person’s social grant, which means he can’t afford to pay the university fees.

Another student, Vuyolwethu Budu, said she was stuck in Mthatha in the Eastern Cape and could not return to Johannesburg if she does not have NSFAS funding. She cannot afford to pay for accommodation and study costs. Budu said this was worrying her because it means her studies will be disrupted.

And the internet signal is weak in her village, which means she struggles with online classes. Last week she had to travel to town and find an internet cafe so that she could write a test.

Her father is the only one who works in the family. He is a security guard. “There is literally nothing he can do,” said Budu.

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

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