Student unrest over funding as registration deadlines loom

Students at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) recently held a protest over increasing problems with funding and registration. The students claim that they had been guaranteed academic funding through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) but are now being forced to pay outstanding amounts from 2014, as well as contribute half the registration fee for 2015.

However, according to DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training, Belinda Bozzoli, more than 40 000 of 150 000 school leavers that qualify to attend university will not be able to attend this year because of insufficient funding.

What we’ve got here is the students who managed to make it through 12 years of schooling and achieve a bachelor’s pass. All are expecting to go to higher education of some sort or another but the vast majority can’t afford it.

Belinda Bozzoli, DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training

What is NSFAS?

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is a fund to assist students who qualify to study at university, but lack the financial means to attend through the provision of bank loans and bursaries. South Africa has 27 traditional universities welcoming a combination of returning and first year students in 2015.

According to Kagisho Mamabolo, National Spokesperson for NSFAS there are not enough funds available. Even though the Department of Higher Education and Training will reportedly contribute R10.2 billion this year to NSFAS, it is still not enough to assist all the students who qualify for financial assistance. The Democratic Alliance has proposed an additional R1 billion emergency fund be set up by the department.

This upfront [registration] payment is not for everyone. It's for the poorest of the poor

Kagisho Mamabolo, National Spokesperson for NSFAS

Who is eligible?

NSFAS offers student loans at an interest rate significantly lower than those offered by commercial banks (it offered 4.4% last year), the scheme is focused on the poorest students, those from families whose total earnings are R200,000 or less a year. Many students who have applied and been accepted into a university await money for registration from NSFAS. Others are left unable to re-register because of unpaid and outstanding fees accounts, as a result of shortages from the previous year. It is reported that at Wits learners are now expected to contribute at least half of the registration fee before they become official students.

NSFAS spokesperson, Kagisho Mamabolo, explains that when the scheme allocates funding they stipulate to universities to list 'the poorest of poor" students who will need assistance with registration fee payment. According to Mamabolo, not all NSFAS students have their registration paid for by the fund. He explains that once a university has provided NSFAS with the list, they make 30% of a student's allocation available to assist with registration.

Kagisho Mamabolo, National Spokesperson for NSFAS, explains to Redi Tlhabi the circusmtances of funding.

I can’t afford my fees and that is why I filled out the forms and they’ve seen my financial crisis.

Final-year law student, Wits

How much is allocated?

Full funding is paid for students who qualify and who pass the NSFAS Means Test, which assesses their family's ability to pay something towards their studies. Students are able to qualify for varying amounts up to the maximum of R60 000 a year. This amount can cover full tuition fees, accommodation, meals, books and travel.

Increasingly, at the beginning of every academic year, students are left in the dark about when they will receive their funding. Universities are therefore, placed in a difficult position. They want to enroll these learners, but are concerned whether the costs of enrollment will be reimbursed by NSFAS, who has, on numerous occasions, been unable to deposit the money timeously, before the annual registration process commences.

Wits University has been put in the spotlight for this very reason. Students were informed on the day of registration that they would have to pay half the amount from their own pockets. The Wits SRC is telling the university to drop the first year fee and demanding that the institution revoke the decision to charge first year students that are waiting for financial aid.

I understand the anger of poor students, but the University has to cover its costs in order to give a quality education. Wits has been allocated R179 million that is available for bursaries for tertiary students. We have been given strict instructions by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme not to exceed the allocated amounts.

Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of the Witwatersrand

What went wrong?

Though the NSFAS scheme has provided funding to thousands of students, they are faced with various management issues. Graduates who have previously benefitted from the funding scheme fail to pay back their debt, thus affecting the reinvestment of money into the fund. Once they have started working and are earning more than R30 000 a year, students are meant to pay back part of the loan.

This matter is of national concern as all students should have the right to further education. Bozzoli, who is also a former Deputy Vice Chancellor at University of the Witwatersrand, suspects that student protests in South Africa will continue; even escalate, in the course of this year.

Read more on the protest action and funding emergency.


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