Stakeholders in the higher education sector briefed the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education Science and Innovation on the efforts they have made to ensure that the 2024 academic year begins well.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Universities South Africa (USAF), the South African Public Colleges Organisation (SAPCO), the South African Union of Students (SAUS) and the South African Technical and Vocational Education and Training Students Association all briefed the committee on their plans, concerns and possible risks in anticipation of the year ahead.

During her opening remarks, committee Chairperson Ms Nompendulo Mkhatshwa said university councils could play a bigger role in supporting accountability by ensuring that universities and TVET colleges are ready for 2024. Members of the committee agreed that honest and transparent stakeholder engagements could ease the turmoil experienced by many institutions at the beginning of an academic year.

USAF, an umbrella body comprising 26 publicly funded universities, told the committee that 210 000 first-time students are expected to enrol, with total enrolment in the public sector standing at 1.1 million. The addition of the private sector brings the total to 1.3 million students. USAF further said the ratio of female to male enrolments is 60:40. USAF is concerned, meanwhile, that National Senior Certificate results will only be released in the third week of January, but some institutions accept students in early January.

SAPCO, which represents 50 TVET colleges, said TVET students receive less funding than university students, an imbalance that should be rectified, particularly when it comes to living allowances. SAPCO also mentioned that 40 000 beds have been accredited in 2024 and proposed that NSFAS and service providers enter into direct leases and agreements on rental rates. SAPCO welcomed the fact that returning students’ allowances are paid two weeks after their results are released and their registrations confirmed. However, greater speed in paying tuition fees is also needed.

SAUS pointed out that both university and TVET students have problems securing accommodation every year. SAUS also called on the department to monitor NSFAS, as NSFAS instability as a ripple effect that hits students from poor backgrounds hardest.

The NSFAS board chairperson, Mr Ernest Khosa said the board needs to be firm about consequence management if it wants to stamp out problems related to direct payments. Mr Khosa also told the committee that after the Board appointed Werksmans Attorneys to investigate allegations against the NSFAS CEO and to review procurement systems and processes, the CEO took the matter to court after his employment contract was terminated. The committee said it is of paramount importance that NSFAS get its house in order to avoid again calling on the National Treasury to rescue the situation.

Mr Khosa further said budget cuts imposed by the National Treasury on the scheme could have a severe impact on the sector, as NSFAS may not be able to pay allowances on time, especially at the beginning of the academic year. The Acting CEO of NSFAS, Mr Masile Ramorwesi, said that calculations show that the 10 per cent reduction in university funding will result in 87 712 students left unfunded in the 2024 academic year. This will eventually increase to 120 976 students. The committee agreed that budget cuts could have dire consequences on institutions of higher learning.

The committee noted that load shedding posed a problem for online applications. Meanwhile, the committee welcomed news that NSFAS is putting measures in place to deal with fraudulent applications such as introducing biometric authentication to address challenges with duplicate registrations.

The committee cautioned stakeholders to resist blaming all the sectors’ failures on NSFAS and called on all role players to play their part to ensure students’ academic futures.

Jabulani Majozi

29 November 2023