The NSFAS is 'not out of the woods' - higher education dept

Pay the right amount of money to the right students at the right time.

This was the task that the chairperson of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education and Training, Connie September, gave to the floundering National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) on Thursday.

In the meeting, it was revealed that NSFAS still hasn't finalised all payments for 2017 and that payments for 2018 were also lagging behind, although most students benefiting from the scheme had been paid.

The genesis of their problems, said executive officer Steven Zwane, was the decision to adopt a new system, taken at the Higher Education Summit in December 2016. 

No 'adequate solutions'

Dr Diane Parker, the deputy director general for universities at the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), pointed out that funding was not the root of the NSFAS' failings. 

"The major area of concern is the unknown number of students who haven't received funding," she said.

She added that they had concerns about the quality of NSFAS data.

"Despite the daily support of departmental officials and DHET support teams, the NSFAS was not able to put in place adequate solutions to address the problems coherently and quickly. 

In July, Minister of Higher Education and Training Naledi Pandor directed the board to not open 2019 applications, and to first complete the funding cycles for 2017 and 2018. The 2019 applications were supposed to open on August 1.

READ: Students' R30bn aid in shambles

In the first week of August, two NSFAS board members and its chairperson, Sizwe Nxasana, resigned.

Pandor called an emergency board meeting, where the board decided to ask the minister to put the NSFAS under administration, which would effectively bring their term to an end.

Pandor agreed. Nonetheless, Neil Garrod was appointed board chairperson.

He told the committee that they would continue their work while they wait on the appointment of an administrator and that they did not take the decision to commit "hara-kiri" – effectively disbanding themselves by requesting to be put under administration – lightly.

"The immediate task of the administrator is to ensure the effective close-out of the 2017 and 2018 funding decisions and disbursements, [and to] put in place plans for the 2019 funding cycle," Parker said.

"The 2019 applications will be opened in early September 2018 and an effective plan for delivering student financial aid, which will involve the support and collaboration of universities and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges will be developed in the next month. Work has already begun on this," she said.

'Our anxiety is not gone'

The committee welcomed Pandor's and the department's interventions but wasn't happy that things escalated to this point.

National Freedom Party MP Moses Khubisa said: "Why are the heads not rolling if the job was not done well?"

ANC MP Juli Killian added that she would be guilty of dereliction of her duties if she didn't express her "very, very serious reservations" about the NSFAS' management.

"They have really done South Africa a very serious disfavour. Some of the sufferings of students could have been averted," she said. 

"We can't let those who let South Africa, let the young people down get away scot-free," she said.

September said: "We're not walking away from this meeting saying that everything is fine, that all students will get their money."

"I don't think the anxiety is gone," she said.

"Our anxiety is not gone," Parker agreed. "We know we are not out of the woods."

Zwane said the department should also shoulder some of the blame for the decision to change the system.