NSFAS: What happens when the free money runs out?

Questioning the supposed entitlement of students may be tempting but it’s the wrong approach to fixing our student funding model.

Unless you are South African Airways, at some point every organisation or state-owned institution’s (SOE’s) access to free money will run out.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is one such free money entity and as a result of December payments being later than expected, the student protests have begun.

One must resist the temptation to roll their eyes at the students. After all, the whole function of the NSFAS is to create access to the higher education market, and as far as I’m aware, that hasn’t really changed. What has changed is the value of that access. Graduate unemployment stories often creep into our newsfeeds.

Creating the wrong expectation, however, can be disastrous and it appears that this is what we have on our hands now.

Students essentially get a few years on the taxpayer purse. The value-add to the taxpayer is a more educated society which can function more effectively and a pool of better potential hires. It seems as appropriate as building a road or putting up a police station – tax used to improve the society as a whole.

READ MORE: Nzimande pushes for more e-learning as NSFAS students wait for laptops

But what happens when the road breaks, or the police station remains empty, or the students aren’t provided for in some instances? The sunken cost already pumped in is less effective in building the society or, at worst, wasted.

With higher education, the risk is higher than most other investments. The student may not finish or may not even end up working in the industry for which they’re being trained. The time commitment is also one that makes calculating the return difficult and with failure may come additional debt which further burdens the country’s coffers in many cases.

So it would make sense that the best thing to do in the cases of investing in students is to ensure that the investment comes with a curated environment and system that allows for students to focus on their studies and not drop out so as to better secure the tax investment.

Alas, it is not so with NSFAS. No, it would appear that NSFAS has created an environment, over time, that creates particular expectations and when those expectations are disrupted, so too are the studies of the students involved.

This December allowance payment fiasco is merely one such example. So a student may be getting their allowance later than when they were expecting it. What has this caused? Protests. But these are not simply protests. They are protests happening at a stressful time after a stressful year, where communication was lacking on many fronts and few people know what’s going on, even now.

READ MORE: NSFAS employees say administrator’s friends were irregularly appointed

You can’t tell me that nobody saw this coming before they decided to shift away from the students’ expectations.

The issue isn’t that the country can ill-afford such a scheme or that the returns aren’t as good as we’d need them to be, or that the money can be put to better use. I mean, all those are certainly considerations.

But the real issue that we’re not confronting is whether this NSFAS scheme is still what it was meant to be.

Sure to some students, it’s a free three-to-five year ride on the taxpayer to get degreed, but the return leg is hardly discussed, let alone considered.

There’s talk about access and political grandstanding to indicate the intense numbers of students being backed but a deeper investigation may reveal that it’s the equivalent of installing solar geysers on low income housing but not going the distance to physically connect them to anything.

If it’s a numbers game and you’re trying to push as many people through the system as possible on as little money as possible, you’re going to have a failed system, especially when you’re communicating a mixed message between offering entitlement but berating the entitled for being entitled.

When it comes to the NSFAS issue, what we’re really paying for is a line item on a list of political slogans and reports to brag about the numbers in the system, without giving a thought to the impact of what we’re doing is on the society, culture, country, tax base and, most importantly, the students.

READ MORE: Nehawu slams NSFAS administrator after 20,000 applications ‘went missing’

Yes, you may think that the students benefit by getting a free education but often that education is not free but free-ish with added expenses.

Those who have had the fortune of a university experience may know that the full benefit comes from things that cost money like being part of associations, tours, networking, national competitions etc… All things NSFAS couldn’t care about, because it would mean fewer people in the system, even if in the long game it also meant fewer unemployed graduates.

The system is basically a budget airline ticket that gets you a seat on a 16-hour flight with one suitcase but no meal.

It’s doable, but only because you’re desperate and so uncomfortable that you can’t be blamed for having no motivation.

If we’re going to be honest with ourselves, we need to relook at what the offering of NSFAS is and where it stands with regard to its mandate. If it’s to push as many students through the pipeline as possible then we can expect it to run its budget as thin as possible and give students a poor university experience but experience nonetheless.

If we want NSFAS to be effective then looking at the expectation of students is an uncomfortable conversation we need to have.

But this song and dance, between these two extremes in the ether that we’re not even trying to engage with critically, is haemorrhaging a lot of tax blood on the state carpet, and if we don’t deal with it, it will come at no surprise that the state will be less nourished than it should and could be.

And we’ll also have a dirty carpet. I wonder who will be called in to clean that up.

Richard Anthony Chemaly. Entertainment attorney, radio broadcaster and lecturer of communication ethics.

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