The impact of Covid-19 on the work of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) came under scrutiny during a joint virtual meeting of the Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology and of the Select Committee on Education, Technology, Sports, Arts and Culture.

During the meeting, the NSFAS, the Council for Higher Education and the South African Qualifications Authority presented their annual performance plans and their strategic plans. R12 billion had been disbursed to students in the financial year.

Co-Chairpeson Mr Elleck Nchabeleng said the education sector had been understandably affected by the lockdown that was necessitated at the outbreak of the corona virus. “We will not learn and teach the way we used to before Covid-19. Most of the things we do will be informed by decisions of the National Command Council.”

NSFAS Administrator Dr Carolissen took the committees through the challenges facing the entity, which include resetting performance targets, a qualified audit opinion, the R7.5 billion in irregular expenditure, and students lying about their financial situation. “This is a period of unparalleled challenges and has forced NSFAS to change how it does its work. Covid-19 had presented NSFAS with a unique situation that has forced the entity to move towards paying directly to students. The entity uses a lot of third parties. We will now remove the voucher system and the intermediaries. TVET colleges are being added to the NSFAS wallet system.”

Dr Carolissen said NSFAS wants to have a full TVET disbursement system paying directly to banking accounts. Work is also being done around a plan to fund post-graduate students who are NSFAS beneficiaries. “NSFAS students struggle beyond undergraduate studies, this has been raised with the minister. As things stand, the policy stipulates that funding is for the attainment of the first degree.”

Members asked whether entities were ready for the budget cuts that are coming as a result of Covid-19. They also asked about the recovery of funds and legal action against officials who have caused NSFAS to incur over R7 billion irregular expenditure. They also wanted to know about the academic year plans, progress made with providing students with laptops, plans for increased funding for students comprising the “missing middle” and the possible impact on qualifications as a result of the extension of the academic year.

Mr Nchabeleng said there had to be clarity on the matter of the missing middle category students. “What policy is there that guides uniformity of approach around these students, the aim should be to make sure that these students get supported.” Unfortunately, the department could not answer as the allocated time was finished.

Sibongile Maputi
11 May 2020