‘Too rich for a loan, too poor to pay fees’

11 November 2015 - 12:25 By Paul Herman, News24

Almost a third of respondents to a survey on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) say their biggest stumbling block was their family's income threshold.

Over 1 000 respondents shared their grievances on the scheme’s biggest problems, from a lack of communication, to late fund releases, to allegations of bias and corruption.

Of the respondents, 30.6% mentioned the income threshold, while 31.9% felt that the long-winded process was the biggest frustration.

News24 spoke to the NSFAS to discuss some of the biggest problems highlighted by News24 users about the government’s student funding scheme.

This is what NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo had to say...

‘I always had to produce proof that both my parents had passed on’

By far the biggest grievance expressed by respondents was the bureaucratic red tape involved in the process.

Students described the paper-based system as “long-winded” and “tedious”, while many took objection to having to provide proof each year that they no longer had parents who could support them.

Mamabolo told News24 that a lot of the process issues existed because of a lack of synchronisation with universities.

“In our old system, students applied through the universities.

“Sometimes the university doesn’t have the capacity to capture data as well. We find that especially at colleges, like Tshwane North and TUT [Tswhane University of Technology].”

He said NSFAS needed the universities to submit their claims by the end of each financial quarter. If they failed to do so, the organisation’s hands were tied.

New system as of 2014

When pressed about the government’s plans to address that disconnect between the institutions and NSFAS, Mamabolo said a new system had already been implemented.

“In our new system you apply through us directly. This has been the second year where students apply through us. We have 11 institutions on board already.”

He said the new student-centred model was not a response to the #FeesMustFall protests, and funding will now be given for the duration of students’ degrees, and not on a year-on-year basis.

He also hopes the new system will solve the problem of students having to rehash that “they are poor”.

A R2.9bn contingency fund was set up to cover the longer duration of funding.

‘I was never told if I was successful or not’

A lot of the problems came down to simple communication between NSFAS and students, and NSFAS and universities.

Mamabolo said the challenges of communication lies with something as simple as a ‘working cellphone’.

“You can’t get anything without a cellphone, so you’re obliged to have a one,” he continued.

“The problem is a working number. On a regular basis, we will send SMSes, emails and use campus radio to communicate.

“But we can’t always get hold of students. Sometimes, they’ve used their parents’ phone from home, who live in other provinces.”

No plans were mentioned though of moving communication to one centralised, online network, that many varsities now use to communicate with students.

The cellphone method will continue to be used in the new system.

‘It is biased, only certain people are chosen’

Many students labelled the process at certain institutions as “corrupt” and “biased”.

One student even accused officials at the University of Limpopo of choosing candidates on the basis of attractiveness.

“Once again, we can’t control what happens at every university,” Mamabolo said.

 “Those employees work for the universities. NSFAS only has one office in Wynberg.

“We had similar problems in the system as well, and the minister [Blade Nzimande] has announced a forensic audit into the allocation of funds."

The corruption report will sample six institutions, and will investigate how the universities allocated the funds, to determine if that has been any evidence of fraud, corruption, maladministration and collusion. 

Mamabolo also added that the new NSFAS system will minimize the risk of human error and possible corruption.

 ‘Interest rate is too high’

“Our policy is that while you study we don’t charge interest. We also don’t collect, you’re not obliged to repay until only once you start working,” Mamabolo said.

“Once you’ve gained employment, if you earn an annual salary of R30 000 [or more], we ask for a repayment of 3% to 8%.”

After the first 12 months following a student’s graduation, interest starts getting charged at 4.6%.

Institutions run a workshop where students are essentially told what they are getting themselves into, he said.

“It is compulsory. You have to understand the form, you need serious documentation. You can’t just sign.

“But the future is in your own hands as a student. If you need funding, you’ve got to attend the workshop.”

Source: News24