Ahead of the new academic year, South Africa’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme – NSFAS – has increased funding for bursaries and loans from R8.3 billion last year to R9.5 billion (US$829 million) in 2015. Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said 205,000 students at 26 universities and 200,000 students at 50 colleges would benefit.
The government’s R1.2 billion funding boost is aimed at increasing the number of especially first-year students from disadvantaged families who can access higher education – and at alleviating unrest that rocks universities at the start of every year, prompted primarily by student financial hardship and inability to pay fees.
Of more than 680,000 school pupils who sat for the 2014 National Senior Certificate examinations late last year, 150,752, obtained ‘bachelor’ passes, making them eligible for university education. Two thirds of these students – 100,000 – will require funding support.
And 85% of the approximately 10,000 pupils who wrote the private sector Independent Examinations Board exams qualified for tertiary studies.
Last year the Department of Higher Education and Training, or DHET, paid a once-off allocation of R1 billion to service a 2013 shortfall of R700 million and a 2014 shortfall of R300 million.
Nzimande said the NSFAS would make further allocations to students studying for critical skills most needed for economic growth – including in science, commerce, health science and engineering. “NSFAS has been allocated over R562.9 million for bursaries for scarce and critical skills for the current year,” he said.
Access to higher education was also being expanded to cater for students with special needs, said the minister, with the NSFAS earmarking R69.3 million in the 2015 academic year to provide financial aid to disabled students in universities.
Extra funding needs
In July last year, the NSFAS admitted to the parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education and training that despite increases in financing, it could only provide 50% of eligible students with loans and bursaries.
It said most funding went to second and third year students, making far less available to first-time entrants.
Before the minister’s announcement last week the official opposition Democratic Alliance, or DA, announced plans to request Nzimande to seek R1 billion in emergency funding from Treasury to enable the NSFAS to support more 2015 first-year students.
Belinda Bozzoli, DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training, said that although about a quarter (150,752) of school-leavers who obtained university passes in 2014 was lower than the 31% (171,755) who did so the previous year, getting a place in university was one thing but paying for it was quite another.
“When only 12% of students made it through 12 years of schooling and achieved a bachelor pass, it is a dire situation that not all of these students will be able to study further due to a lack of funding,” she said.
Around half of all young South Africans drop out of school before the school-leaving national examinations, the upshot of abysmally poor state schooling.
Bozzoli hoped to prevent a repeat of the sometimes violent protests that broke out at a number of universities last year, after hundreds of desperate students learned that there were no funds for them. “That must be avoided this year,” she said.
Not places for everyone
Even with more student bursaries and loans, there are not enough places for all qualifying students to secure a university place.
Nzimande urged school-leavers to consider further education opportunities within the Post-School Education and Training, or PSET, sector as university was not the only option available to start their careers.
The minister said there were 425,095 opportunities available to school-leavers in 2015 within the PSET system – 28,646 above the number offered in early 2014. Of these, only 204,522 new entrant opportunities were being offered at the country’s 26 universities.
The University of Johannesburg and the University of the Witwatersrand, or Wits, told local media that they could not accommodate all applicants and would not be accepting ‘walk-ins’.
The University of Johannesburg said it planned to admit 10,500 first-year students out of 111,200 applications, while Wits said it had received 51,000 applications for 6,255 first-year places. The universities encouraged students not accepted to consider enrolling for part-time studies and short courses.
DHET spokesman Khaye Nkwanyana told the media that while the country’s top universities would come under pressure to accept late applications, all universities had agreed to work together to alleviate the problem.
According to the vice-chancellors’ association Higher Education South Africa, or HESA, the opening of two new institutions – Sol Plaatje University in Kimberley and the University of Mpumalanga in Mbombela – would reduce pressure on the higher education sector in the long term.
But the intake of the new universities is still small. Mpumalanga had 200 students at the beginning of 2014 – a number projected to grow to 20,000 students by 2030. Sol Plaatje will start with a modest initial intake of 150 students.
In December Higher Education South Africa met with the DHET and the NSFAS to discuss improving mechanisms to disburse funds.
Participants noted the need for a communication plan to ensure that universities and students were ready for the 2015 academic year, and for the DHET to engage with student leaders and other stakeholders.
The NSFAS was asked to improve its communication with students and universities on policies, timely allocation of funding to universities, and enforcement of rules and regulation of the scheme.
Universities were tasked with communicating better with students on matters related to the NSFAS, with each institution having to review the efficiency and effectiveness of its communication system with students on the scheme. It was noted that at some universities, inadequate communication had led to student protests in the past.
The return of a large number of students eligible for NSFAS loans at various universities, on the understanding that additional funds would be secured to settle their debts, was causing problems.
A funding arrangement to assist unfunded returning students currently in the system was suggested as a possible solution. Such funding should be for two years to enable the students to move out of the system – but from 2015 onwards, students would only be admitted on the basis of confirmed offers from the NSFAS via universities, the meeting heard.
According to the Sowetan newspaper, Nzimande said investigations into allegations of corruption in the disbursement of NFSAS funding would start this month. Some students and student leaders revealed they knew of students who were not qualified to get NSFAS funding, but were accessing it after colluding with some NSFAS officials at some institutions.