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By Getrude Makhafola

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Is NSFAS sustainable? More needs to be done to help poor university students

Despite an increased Nsfas budget every year, many students are left out.


In a country that can barely address the basic needs of its people and with many dependent on social grants, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) is buckling under the pressure to fund the ever-growing number of students who are desperate for higher education. According to education expert and Stellenbosch University Professor Sioux McKenna, the ongoing funding problems cannot be separated from the destitute societies within which universities operate in. Campus protests University and college campuses are rocked by protests at the start of every academic year as many cannot return because they owe fees, while newcomers battle to…

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In a country that can barely address the basic needs of its people and with many dependent on social grants, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) is buckling under the pressure to fund the ever-growing number of students who are desperate for higher education.

According to education expert and Stellenbosch University Professor Sioux McKenna, the ongoing funding problems cannot be separated from the destitute societies within which universities operate in.

Campus protests

University and college campuses are rocked by protests at the start of every academic year as many cannot return because they owe fees, while newcomers battle to secure funding and accommodation.

Western Cape, Cape Town, Pretoria, Free State, Nelson Mandela Bay and Sol Plaatjie universities are experiencing rolling protests over registration issues and lack of accommodation for Nsfas-funded students.

At the University of Pretoria, students slept outside residence offices to call attention to their plight with the Nsfas funding processes.

For 2023, Nsfas received over a million applications and has set aside R47 billion in funding for the academic year.

ALSO READ: Out of 100 students, only 12 go to university – Nzimande

Nsfas viability

McKenna says there needs to be a serious conversation about the sustainability of Nsfas.

She said the centralisation of payments as a result of mismanagement at some institutions was unfortunate.

“In many universities, allocation and payment of Nsfas had been extremely well managed. Now students experience delays in getting their funds with negative consequences for their studies and their mental well-being.

“But this aside, there needs to be a serious conversation about how sustainable Nsfas is. Its budget grows year on year resulting in cuts in other university projects, with potential consequences for the quality of research, teaching and learning.

“Nsfas is a truly remarkable programme offering opportunities to many who would never be able to access higher education without it. Universities are increasingly having to grapple with issues of providing meals and toiletries and such, to students who cannot afford their own.”

Societal issues such as high unemployment and poverty have a heavy bearing on educational institutions, said McKenna.

“Without opportunities of employment through mass public works or economic stimulation, many young people turn to higher education in the hopes that the piece of paper will open doors to a reasonable life for them and their families.

“Unfortunately, their chances of success in the system remain low. Poor schooling has left them ill-prepared for the complex practices of the university and the multiple pressures on academics in university makes it increasingly challenging for them to provide sufficient support for students.”

‘Pro-poor’ government needed

McKenna said the country needed a “pro-poor” government that works for all.

“In a country with the largest percentage of its population living on social grants, neither Nsfas nor the higher education system can fully address the problems.

“What we need is a pro-poor government that is invested in building the economy for all. Discussions about the Nsfas system that are de-contextualised from discussions about corruption, cronyism and the hoarding of wealth by the country’s elite miss the very important wider picture within which the issue of student funding occurs.”

Tug of war between universities, landlords

Meanwhile, the SA Union of Students (Saus) has blamed service providers and universities for the shortage of accommodation for Nsfas beneficiaries.

READ MORE: Universities raising money to help support poor, missing middle students

Spokesperson Asive Dlanjwa said Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria are the only two institutions where service providers charge more than Nsfas’ R4 500 rental per month cap.

While most service providers meet Nsfas’ minimum standards requirements such as safety, adequate living conditions and a secure environment – many add unnecessary frills and charge more, making accommodation unaffordable for poor students.

“Even on-campus accommodation has different packages – R3 500 for a room, while a room with a kitchen can cost up to R4 000.

“We’ve always been saying that Nsfas beneficiaries be given preference on basic accommodation at these institutions. Those that can afford more can pay for these extra frills, but basic accommodation that meets minimum standards must be set aside for state-funded students.”

He accused the institutions of colluding with service providers.

“Why are there no rental cap issues at TUT [Tshwane University of Technology], which is in the same city as UP? Or at UCT and UWC?

“The burden to live at an upmarket place should not lie with the state. It does not make sense that we are short of funding but we fund luxury. You can’t tell me there is a drastic difference in the property market for TUT and UP.”

Said McKenna: “I think the seemingly sensible accommodation requirements, meant to protect students from the glut of greedy landlords, are simply not implementable – with the unintended consequence of scarcity of places for students.

“Also, many of them [landlords] also cannot meet the minimum requirements. Perhaps it is correct that they not be allowed to rent out to Nsfas beneficiaries – but then we have a shortage of Nsfas-approved places. It’s a catch-22 situation.”

NOW READ: Nsfas cap on accommodation funding forces UP students to sleep on the streets

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