/ 19 February 2024

NSFAS accommodation project is a ‘time bomb’ says Outa

Wits Protest
File photo: The pilot project involves 39 public higher education institutions, including the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Western Cape. (Photo by Ihsaan Haffejee/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) pilot project on student accommodation is a “time bomb waiting to explode”, the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) has said, as tertiary education students scramble to find housing.

The student accommodation pilot project, which was launched this year, is aimed at ensuring NSFAS only pays for student accommodation that is conducive to studying and saves students from having to live in inappropriate housing.

The pilot project involves 39 public higher education institutions, including the University of Johannesburg and the University of the Western Cape.

But last week, GroundUp reported that more than 100 students were squatting with their belongings in the multipurpose hall on the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) campus after the institution said that residences were full.

“As of 9 February, the university-owned accredited and leased residences have reached full capacity,” read an email sent to students by the Student Life and Residential Services department on 10 February.

Many students have been living in the hall, without mattresses or other furniture, and have been struggling to find accommodation since 31 January.

“The situation is a result of interference by NSFAS. The system worked well [but] all of that changed when NSFAS decided to take over the process of accreditation and renting out accommodation,” said Rudie Heyneke, Outa head of investigations. 

Following the media traction on the accommodation crisis at CPUT, the financial aid scheme released a statement that said the institution had requested to be exempted from the 2024 pilot project.

“It remains the NSFAS commitment to ensure that CPUT students are provided with student accommodation that is accessible, decent, safe and conducive to learning,” read the NSFAS statement.

It added that management of the financial aid scheme would be visiting “hotspot institutions”, including CPUT, Buffalo City TVET College in East London and the University of KwaZulu-Natal, in the coming weeks to find solutions to the accommodation crisis.

“We held frank and cordial engagements with these selected institutions and are looking forward to equally progressive meetings with the other identified institutions, including stakeholders within the post-school education and training sector,” the NSFAS board chairperson Ernest Khosa said in a statement last year.

Students at NSFAS-accredited accommodation in Johannesburg, Horizon Heights, have expressed concern after they were told their lease was up last month. The students, who have started an online petition, said they had been removed from single rooms without reason.

The South African Students Congress’s Wanga Sigila branch at the University of the Western Cape has called out NSFAS and the university management for their failure to provide accommodation.

“The institution has done little to none to secure more bed spaces for the many students who have been impacted by the NSFAS pilot project, which makes it difficult for many landlords to take NSFAS-funded students,” branch president McIntosh Khasembe told the Mail & Guardian.

According to Khasembe, students are being told to register for the academic year but have not been allocated beds, leaving many stranded.

“Students are sleeping in kitchens and hallways — there is an excess of students that don’t match the number of beds,” said Khasembe.

Outa warned NSFAS about the accommodation crisis after its investigative report in December, saying the housing crisis was due to “inexperienced service providers”. 

“These inspection and accreditation services were normally handled by accredited service providers on behalf of universities and colleges but NSFAS decided to contract this function out to inexperienced and understaffed service providers. 

“All of this happened through dubious tender processes,” Heyneke said

Outa said students have been reaching out to the organisation to intervene in the crisis and warned that if it was not solved, students would have no option but to take to the streets.

“It is despicable that NSFAS is allowed to gamble with the future of young people who want to better their lives through education. 

“At this stage, the only logical decision would be for NSFAS management to stop the pilot project before this becomes a full-blown accommodation crisis that can easily spill over into student protests,” said Heyneke.

Meanwhile, NSFAS announced that it had disbursed R2.8 billion last month, which covers one month of student accommodation and book allowances.