News Column

Student finance scheme is a national treasure

February 7, 2014

The academic year has started with student protests at a number of universities, especially universities of technology, over issues associated with registration.

Most of the dissatisfaction appears to be associated with the payment of fees and demands for more money from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Many of the views expressed by roleplayers have been contradictory and some even call into question the usefulness or effectiveness of the aid scheme. It is thus important to review the role that it plays in our education system.

NSFAS, since its inception, has provided study opportunities to thousands of poor, mainly black, students.

It was established in 1999 and since then its growth has been phenomenal.

Between 1999 and 2008 the funds managed by the scheme grew from R441 million to R2.375 billion, providing financial aid to almost a fifth of university students over this period.

This year the amount made available through the scheme is over R9bn.

Few government budgets can boast this level of growth.

The number of aid scheme beneficiaries has also grown - from 41 600 in 1999 to 77 000 in 2008 and about 430 000 this year.

Until 2011 beneficiaries were exclusively university students but since 2011 they've included Further Education and Training (FET) college students.

This year, the number of beneficiaries in FET colleges slightly outnumbers those in universities. Since its inception, the scheme has assisted more than 1.4 million students.

The scheme has made a qualitative difference to the lives of students from poor families.

Most of these students have been the first from their families to attend university or college. Most have benefited greatly from the opportunity, providing skills to the economy and benefiting themselves and their families.

A recent study by Stellenbosch professor, Servaas van der Berg, has shown that the academic performance of aid scheme beneficiaries is slightly better than the average.

A significant number of aid scheme alumni have gone on to post-graduate studies and have earned masters and doctoral degrees. No doubt, the aid scheme is one of the most significant achievements by the ANC government.

Despite the enormous growth of the funding made available to the scheme, it is still not enough to cover all the needs of poor students who qualify academically to enter university. Not unnaturally, this causes unhappiness.

The scheme does not continue funding students whose academic performance is inadequate.

This will not change even though some poorly performing students fuel the protests; those who underperform cannot be allowed to take places from others.

A cause of dissatisfaction among a section of students is the policy of not providing loans for those registered for a B Tech degree in universities of technology and comprehensive universities. They argue that this is a bachelor's degree and should be funded like any other bachelor's degree.

However, all students who enter a B Tech programme already have a diploma and thus do not qualify for a loan which is currently only given for a first undergraduate qualification.

Debate over this is likely to continue and a decision will need to be taken before long.

Other reasons behind the recent bout of student unrest include the so-called historic debt. This consists of fees that students ought to have been paid in past years; in consequence universities will not register them.

The Department of Higher Education and Training has in the past set aside millions of rand to assist such students, but funding is not unlimited.

The actual system of granting loans is in need of an overhaul. Up to now, NSFAS money has been paid directly to universities which have then drawn up criteria for distributing it to their own students.

This has meant that there are no nationally uniform criteria for granting loans; and administrative weaknesses at some university and college financial aid offices have also led to inefficiencies.

The aid scheme has therefore decided to shift to a system where it deals directly with the students, thereby creating a more efficient system and obviating the need for universities to be part of the process of awarding and administering loans.

This new system is being piloted in seven universities and five FET colleges. Its introduction has been affected by technical teething problems. Some students have been unhappy with online applications which don't allow for face-to-face discussion of their needs.

Many also charge that the software is not user-friendly. The scheme has started to take such concerns into account and is seeking ways to resolve them.

Other administrative problems associated with student registration at some institutions are also being dealt with.

I recognise that some of the students' grievances are legitimate and that students have the right to protest.

What I do not accept, however, is the tendency of some to resort to violence and the destruction of property. This is not only counter-productive and totally unacceptable; it is illegal and will be dealt with as a criminal activity.

The ANC remains committed to progressively introduce free education for the poor up to undergraduate level.

This goal has not yet been achieved but huge progress has been made in massively expanding post-school educational opportunities.

The government will continue to play its part in ensuring the expansion of educational access until its goals have been reached.

It is incumbent on all role-players to co-operate in resolving the challenges reasonably and through dialogue and proper communication. All have responsibilities: the department, aid scheme, university and college administrations and student leadership.

The financial aid system we have set up has made an enormous contribution to its individual beneficiaries and to the country.

It is still not perfect; it's flaws must be ironed out and it must be made to work more smoothly and efficiently.

To do this, all parties have a responsibility to collaborate, to be respectful of each other's perspectives and experiences, to ensure that public resources are taken care of, and to be intolerant of wastage through corruption or through inefficiency.

NSFAS is a national asset. Let's nurture it ensure that it continues to serve our youth and our country.

l Dr Nzimande, MP, is Minister of Higher Education and Training.

Daily News

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Source: Daily News (South Africa)

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