Students' R30bn aid in shambles

Thousands of disadvantaged students could be left stranded and clueless about next year’s funding, after Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor asked the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) to halt its funding plans for the 2019 academic year.

On Wednesday, August 1, Nsfas was meant to open applications for the 2019 academic year, but Pandor has instructed staff at the funding organisation not to open the application process until it gets its house in order.

The National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu) has also entered the fray, calling for a motion of no confidence in the chief executive officer (CEO), Steven Zwane, and chairperson Sizwe Nxasana.

Some of the accusations levelled against Zwane, who has been at the helm for less than a year, include allegedly making irregular appointments of managers, who were his subordinates from his previous employment at Absa.

It has also been alleged that a tender was given to his former Absa boss to consult for Nsfas payments to students, and that Standard Bank and the scandal-ridden VBS Mutual Bank were awarded a Nsfas tender roll.

Nsfas gets close to R30 billion of the R89 billion budget received by the department of higher education and training.

Its financial reports for the 2016/17 academic year reflect that 255 557 students were assisted at 50 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, while 225 950 students were helped at 26 public universities.

In a letter written to the board dated July 16, of which City Press has a copy, Pandor instructed the board to halt the process until “2018 processes are properly concluded”.

“The department will investigate all business processes at Nsfas, and this will commence in August,” read part of Pandor’s letter to the board.

“However, in the interim, I am directing Nsfas not to open the applications process for 2019 on August 1 2018. This cannot be done until 2018 processes are properly concluded. Once outstanding matters are addressed, I must be informed by the board.”

In April, News24 reported that the minister had ordered Nsfas to get its house in order. Apparently, this has not happened, if this month’s letter from the minister to the board is anything to go by.

In the letter, Pandor described reports she received from Nsfas as “confusing and sometimes inaccurate”.

The minister also indicated that she was “concerned about the reliability of the confirmed registration numbers”, and highlighted her concern with the slow generation of financial aid and the ongoing problems with disbursement of payments to sBux and non-sBux institutions.

The minister also noted that it appeared as if “core data integration challenges remain”.

She then directed the board to appoint a support team with the requisite skills in information technology, human resources, higher education student funding and organisational systems.

This letter was a follow-up to the one she wrote on May 3 in which she raised concerns.

“On May 3, I wrote to the Nsfas board, highlighting my concern at the inadequate progress in processing applications and approving payments,” wrote Pandor in the latest letter.

“It is clear from the most recent reports that the challenges we identified continue to be experienced and that they are having a negative effect on the higher education and training system.

“I directed the board to pay attention to the immediate problems concerning systems and process failures, and also indicated that, following the conclusion of the 2018 disbursement, the department of higher education and training will conduct a full investigation of the Nsfas business processes.”

The board was directed to ensure that:

• There is an urgent resolution to the integration of registration and funding data between Nsfas and universities and colleges, in consultation with these institutions;

• Accurate bursary agreements are generated and signed as a matter of urgency, and thereafter reviewed to ensure that they are compliant with all legal and policy prescripts;

• Students immediately receive confirmation of their funding if data related to their application have been integrated; and

• Such funds are disbursed to students without further delay, subject to control measures to ensure that the correct students are paid.

In a letter dated April 20 2018, Nehawu described its disappointment with the CEO.

The union alleged in the letter that a senior manager position for performance and evaluation was a single post, but two people were employed.

It also stated that the general manager position was never advertised, but a person from the bank was employed.

In a follow-up letter dated May 3, Nehawu further alleged that Nsfas was in financial administration chaos. It also highlighted concerns with the administration of Nsfas by the leadership (the CEO and the board).

Nehawu’s secretary-general, Zola Saphetha, confirmed that the union also sent a letter to Pandor, calling for the removal of both the CEO and the chairperson.

“Since the beginning of the year, following strikes by workers who were discontent with the working conditions of Nsfas, we wrote to the chairperson, Sizwe Nxasana, in about February and tabled a number of issues, but he ignored us,” said Saphetha.

“We could not address issues about the CEO with him directly as he would have been a player and referee to matters implicating him directly.”

The beleaguered Zwane said he was aware of the letter from the union. He, however, denied any wrongdoing, insisting he had a healthy relationship with the board.

“Yes, I’m aware. As you know, the CEO is appointed by the board, and therefore, the matters raised by Nehawu would be deliberated by the board,” he said.

“It is not for me to respond to the media about this matter, but I have responded to Nehawu’s letter.”

Zwane said he did not approve a tender roll-out to VBS and Standard Bank: “The CEO does not approve any tender above R1 million.”

Nsfas spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo confirmed that all appointments made by Zwane were “in accordance with the organisation’s rules and strategy, aimed at building the much-needed capacity and capability to deliver on the new mandate”.

“Normal recruitment and selection processes were used to source candidates for the position. We received applications from several applicants and are happy with the outcome of those processes,” said Mamabolo.

Lunga Ngqengelele, spokesperson for the department of higher education and training, confirmed that Pandor had received the letter from the union.

However, he added: “The minister does not discuss her correspondences with anyone other than people she is dealing with” – referring to the letter to the Nsfas board.

City Press has reliably learnt that the board had called a special meeting to discuss the contents in both Pandor and Nehawu’s letters which demanded the removal of the chairperson and the CEO.