Higher Education, Science and Technology Minister Dr Blade Nzimande says former President Jacob Zuma’s free higher education announcement in 2017 “messed” the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
Nzimande was responding to questions from Parliament’s Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) members on Tuesday when he made the comment.
Announcement ‘messed NSFAS big time’
SCOPA members had asked him to explain NSFAS’ “poor performance,” including a recent audit disclaimer from the Auditor-General.
He said Zuma’s surprise announcement ignored the recommendations of a commission of inquiry into higher education and training, chaired by Justice Jonathan Arthur Heher, which said South Africa had no capacity to fund free higher education.
“That announcement to say we are moving to a new scheme 14 days before it had to be implemented messed NSFAS big time [and] exposed the extent to which NSFAS didn’t have a system,” Nzimande said.
“It increased the number of NSFAS beneficiaries and what was worse with that decision, it ignored the work that was done by the Heher Commission and the transitional measures. That’s why we have agreed with the Treasury now that it will go back to the Heher Commission.”
Zuma made the announcement on the eve of the ANC’s 54th National Conference in December 2017, sparking speculation that it was a politically calculated move to increase Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s chances of winning the ANC’s presidency. Dlamini-Zuma was believed to be his favoured candidate at the conference.
The Heher Commission recommended that all undergraduate and postgraduate students in both public and private universities, regardless of their family backgrounds, should be funded through government-guaranteed loans from commercial banks.
NSFAS funding shortfall
In a media briefing earlier this week, Nzimande said NSFAS currently has a funding shortfall and is therefore unable to confirm funding for first-time entering students at the moment.
He explained, “There are [a] few reasons why we are having this shortfall. First is because of COVID-19. We had to continue to pay NSFAS allowances even at the time when universities were closed, as part of students’ access to multimodal teaching and learning. This means we had an extended academic year which we did not allocate additional money for.
“Secondly, we had budget cuts across government departments. Thirdly, because of the deteriorating economic situation, where many NSFAS applicants who were not previously meeting the funding requirements for NSFAS now do. Due to COVID-19, a majority of them qualify because their parents lost their jobs in the process.”
Nevertheless, he announced a two-week extension of the registration period for first-time entering students as government explores funding options.