Report lifts lid on financial aid scheme

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Cape Town - The Department of Higher Education could soon instruct the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to stop deducting money from past beneficiaries of the scheme without their consent.

Currently past students who owe NSFAS and who are now working are having their salaries deducted by employers without their consent and the money is paid straight to the scheme.

But a ministerial committee tasked to review NSFAS on Tuesday released its much-awaited report that is set to bring drastic changes in student funding. It also demands NSFAS to remove all students it has black listed on credit bureaus.

The committee, led by professor Marcus Balintulo has also recommended changes to the policy, regulations and operational framework of the NSFAS to allow the scheme to absorb more needy student who wished to further their education.

It says the Minister of Education Blade Nzimande should on constitutional, legal and moral grounds instruct NSFAS to immediately stop all loan recoveries from past students without their consent and refrain from using this method in its dept recovery practice.

NSFAS is a state-funded initiative formed in 2000 to assist financially needy students enter institutions of higher education.

The scheme replaced Tertiary Education Funds of South Africa (TEFSA) which was formed in 1991.In 2005, the scheme awarded R1.2 billion to financially needy students who wished to further their studies.

The committee, which spent more than eight months reviewing the scheme, has further recommended the investigating the introduction of a constitutionally compliant section of the NSFAS Act to enable NSFAS to recover loan repayments directly through the taxation system.

It wants government to revalue the NSFAS loan book to assess the accuracy of the R10 billion valuation and that the revaluations should be done timeously to allow the minister to report any adjustment to parliament prior to the financial year end.

"The committee also recommends that NSFAS should not blacklist students with credit bureaus and should remove the names of all students currently black listed with the TransUnion ITC credit bureau and or any other credit bureaus," said the report.

Speaking later to BuaNews Nzimande said while he was not expecting Cabinet to agree all the recommendations saying "we will be presenting our case".
"I don't want to preempt a discussion in Cabinet, all we would like to do to the best of our ability is to present a compelling case," Nzimande said.

He affirmed that while the report touched on many issues, not all of them can be solved in a short period of time.

"We have to go to Cabinet and say what is it that we think its feasible but that we want to increase access to poor students is non-negotiable".

The panel has also recommended that government investigate whether to expand the categories of students admitted to universities, to include people with work experience and no matric, and end the criteria of using race as major criteria to award financial assistance to students.

Research has shown that only between 12 and 15 percent of black and coloured students gain entrance to higher education and only about five percent graduate. There is also evidence that some white students had been refused assistance even though some may have proved to be financially needy.

Nzimande slammed universities who were still demanding NSFAS students to pay registration fees in cash despite a directive from his predecessor Naledi Pandor urging universities to rather deduct the money from the scheme.

"It's nice to talk about the parental responsibility versus state responsibility when you can afford. But the reality is that most students cannot afford these registration fees and some are from families with no bread winner at all," he said.

The recommendations will be released for public comment.

"We want the country to engage on especially the stakeholders; many of them have participated in the process and were already interviewed. We're talking students, academics, university management, workers and what the committee is saying is that the report has benefited immensely from the comments of the stakeholders," Nzimande said.

The minister conceded that while the recommendations may require a major financial injection into the scheme and the higher education sector in general, a consideration needed to be made as to where the line should be drawn between state responsibility and that of parents.
NSFAS has provided study loans an estimated 250 000 students. The scheme fund receives about R2.1-billion a year from the government.