NSFAS administrator Randall Carolissen determined to stabilise funding scheme
The new head of the NSFAS has a lot on his mind and a lot on his plate — making sure billions of rands are properly disbursed to students in urgent need
Randall Carolissen's corner office is not what you might expect for someone in control of a R30bn budget. It's unremarkable to the point of frugality, dimly lit, and the air conditioner either doesn't work or is switched off.
Open windows do little to cool the physical temperature, which closely resembles the metaphorical heat on the new head of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
Carolissen entered his Wynberg, Cape Town, office last August amid an eight-month crisis that left tens of thousands of students penniless and, in some cases, starving.
Auditor-general Kimi Makwetu gave the scheme a qualified audit opinion last year, expressing serious concerns about its lack of internal controls.
And the parliamentary watchdog, the standing committee on public accounts, has demanded assurances from the NSFAS that the scheme will run smoothly this year, when it will be responsible for the financial well-being of about 800,000 students.
The low point, in terms of public perceptions, arrived when a company contracted by the scheme mistakenly paid Walter Sisulu University student Sibongile Mani R14m for her food and books allowance in 2017.
By the time the error was discovered, Mani had allegedly splurged R800,000 on a lavish lifestyle, and she faces criminal charges.
The department of higher education brought in Carolissen to deal with what had become a multibillion-rand headache. In a meeting at his office, he told Sunday Times that far from wilting under the heat, he had "a very good story" to tell.
"You will remember that students went unfunded in 2018 for a period of up to eight months. That created significant instability on campuses," he said.
"That was because of collapsing systems. It collapsed every night when I arrived here. This was caused by random access to the system, there were no controls. A friend of a friend could go and make changes in the system. We tightened that up. We also tightened the disbursement process, there was no protocol."
Carolissen said educational institutions were sitting with billions of rands that they did not know how to disburse. The scheme failed to provide guidelines and a blame game ensued - at the expense of students.
"But when we generated a remittance system and handed it to the institutions, that unlocked R11bn in two months, which was paid to students. That created stability because people could see the money coming through and they could settle their debts and they could buy food because they were starving," he said.
Carolissen took over from businessman Sizwe Nxasana, who resigned as chair of NSFAS in August 2018. In a statement released at the time, Nxasana said: "Since December 2016, the NSFAS mandate and funding obligations increased exponentially, placing extreme strain on the organisation's systems and processes."
Carolissen has dismantled bloated management layers and sent senior officials to work directly with students at institutions across the country.
His voice rises when he speaks about the new funding model for 2019. "We have now standardised allowances between universities and TVET [technical and vocational education and training] colleges. There's more equity now and we hope to make TVET colleges more attractive," he said.
"We are going to pay cash directly to students' bank accounts, unlike before where they got vouchers and were directed to buy at certain retail stores and certain bookshops. We also pay residence and transport allowance.
"The personal care allowance will be for sanitary towels … we are taking interest in the success of our students, we can't afford people to miss classes because [of] hygiene needs, especially ladies."
Alongside the practical steps he has taken, Carolissen has embarked on a campaign to change the public perception of NSFAS.
"I said to [NSFAS spokesperson] Kagiso [Mamabolo], there are many things that are happening and we give these things in snaps. We need to actually … give some view of why we are doing some of these things and once and for all correct misconceptions and have a more substantive story so that people can say, 'This is what is happening at NSFAS'.
"You get snaps and people say, 'We are now confused, are they still doing what they are supposed to be doing?' But I think overall it has been a very good story."
With a PhD is nano-physics, Carolissen is first and foremost a numbers man, and he has shored up his plan comprehensively with statistics. From memory, he recites the number of applications NSFAS has received for 2019, the number of students who were funded last year and how much the National Treasury has allocated to the scheme for next year.
Carolissen is no stranger to the spotlight. A former South African Revenue Service (Sars) group executive for the tax, customs and excise institute, he testified before the commission that probed tax administration and governance at Sars under Tom Moyane, the former commissioner, last year.
He told the commission, chaired by retired judge Robert Nugent, how Moyane's restructuring project destroyed Sars's world-renowned forecasting and analysis unit.
Carolissen has been a member of the Wits University council for 10 years, for the past six years as its chair. Besides his extensive academic and corporate experience, Carolissen says his experience in defusing #FeesMustFall tensions stood him in good stead to steer the scheme in the right direction.
"During #FeesMustFall when times were tough, students locked in [Wits vice-chancellor] Adam Habib, and I had to go and pull him out of that meeting," he said.
His experience on the front lines of higher education also informs another priority he has set for the NSFAS: reducing the dropout rate among students, who receive an average of R100,000 a year from the scheme.
"That is a lot of money. If you don't ensure that students are successful, then it's a waste to the state. We are going to be talking to the universities to assist the students to learn better … poverty doesn't mean stupidity," added Carolissen.
The complexity of his task was highlighted this week during a meeting with the SA Union of Students (SAUS). The student group issued an uncompromising statement dealing with a range of issues, from student victimisation and the national qualification framework to the residence fee increment. Among its demands is that the NSFAS clear the "historical debt" of students who enrolled at higher learning institutions before the inception of free education.
"As a union, we want to make it clear that we will not tolerate any institution that will block students who are poor and qualify for NSFAS based on historic debt," said Thabo Shingange, SAUS's national spokesperson.
"We take note of the positive positioning of NSFAS, however, [we] remain dedicated to ensuring the gains of free education are enjoyed broadly and by all. To this end the union has made a clear appeal to the administrator to clear historical debt of all students to ensure positive inclination in the rollout of free education."
The students' demands seemed to grow by the minute, just like the list of high-ranking politicians alleged to be on the Bosasa payroll.
"We also put forward a firm request to the NSFAS administrator to open applications for students who did not get a chance to apply, even if it's opened for two days that will assist students not to be closed out," said Shingange.
"More importantly, as SAUS, we have met with NSFAS officials and have put forward our position to the administrator that student representatives must be part of the NSFAS committee dealing with NSFAS appeals to ensure that students' appeals are considered because we don't believe that NSFAS can arbitrate their own processes unchecked."
The student union did however welcome the NSFAS decision to pay allowances directly to beneficiaries. It said it would, together with NSFAS, introduce online financial management courses to equip students to better manage their finances.
The SAUS also criticised the department of higher education, accusing it of failing to develop a "central applications system".
"We again want to give a warning to the department to stop stalling projects deliberately as this wastes taxpayers' money," Shingange said. "To further stress the importance of this, we are giving the department six months to fix this issue lest we take extreme measures. The disingenuity of agreeing to projects and stalling them is a direct attack to the transformation agenda of the sector, a sector which as a union we are committed to defend."
DA spokesperson on higher education Belinda Bozzoli welcomed Carolissen's efforts. She said it was difficult to measure the effectiveness of his strategy before student registrations are completed.
"It is definitely too early to judge," said Bozzoli. "But they have cleaned it [the NSFAS] up and they are introducing new systems, they are getting rid of poorly performing people there and they have put in better staff. It is looking good in theory, however it is an immensely complicated system. It will be worth following up after the registration period."
Carolissen also got a thumbs-up from #FeesMustFall activist Chumani Maxwele.
"We are very optimistic about NSFAS," he said. "Our optimism comes out of the fact that we have faith in our leadership, that is, minister [Naledi] Pandor and her collective. And more importantly we are optimistic because we will keep our leadership accountable as young activists, so we will not wait until things get too bad; we will intervene as and when it is necessary to do so."
QUICK FACTS A student's family has to have an annual income of less than R350,000 to qualify for NSFAS.
The NSFAS received 417.000 new funding applications for the 2019 academic year.
The scheme funded 690,000 students during the 2018 academic year and the figure is expected to rise above 800,000 in 2019.
With it's R30bln budget, in 2019, the scheme is tasked with funding students at 26 public universities and 50 vocational education and training colleges.
The budget for the scheme is set to increase to R38bn for the 2020 academic year.