South African students demand changes to education funding

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“Is education really free?” read the first line of the memorandum of demands presented by the South African Union of Students and various university SRCs to the recently-appointed administrator of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), Randall Carolissen.

Brief background

NSFAS has been the subject of immense scrutiny in universities across the country due to late payment of allowances for food, books, transport or accommodation, the non-processing of appeals and discrepancies between on-campus and off-campus student allowances.

“The data integrity was all messed up, nobody knew what the correct data was. No one knew which students needed to receive how much; it was all a mess,”

Carolissen told the Mail & Guardian in March 2019.

Increased frustrations surrounding ill-access to university education have spotlighted the inadequacies of NSFAS since the advent of nationwide free education protests in 2015. Under these conditions, a group of approximately 170 students from Free State, Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Eastern Cape and the Western Cape marched to the NSFAS head offices in Wynberg, Cape Town on the 19th of June 2019.

Five demands of the protest

Five demands were presented to NSFAS. First, the “scrapping of Circular Note 6.”

Circular Notice 6 refers to communication from NSFAS in January 2019 updating universities on new protocols for funding guidelines, walk-in applications, allowance payments, funded students, the new funding system and a memorandum of understanding between NSFAS and universities. The issue raised by the protesting students was the funding protocol “is very exclusionary particularly to students living at home.”

Under new guidelines, fully-funded students staying in on-campus accommodation or private off-campus accommodation are eligible to receive R5 000 overall for books and R14 400 for meals (including a R2 750 living allowance) for a total annual allowance of R19 400. NSFAS funds the full tuition and accommodation for these students, granted their accommodation does not exceed R32 000 per annum. Students living at home are not eligible for meal and living allowances. They receive the R5 000 book allowance and a R10 000 transport allowance for a total annual allowance of R15 000.

Second, the reinstating of “funding for Postgraduate Qualifications at least up to Honours level.”

“The path to employment is no longer secured through a single certificate” argued the memorandum in favour of funding for postgraduate qualifications. NSFAS guidelines state that they only fund two postgraduate qualifications — the Postgraduate Certification in Education (PGCE) and the postgraduate qualification required to register with the professional body as a chartered accountant.

Third, the finalisation of all appeals with outcomes “communicated to each and every student who appealed” by 16:00 on 28 June 2019. Fourth, “decentralising NSFAS and opening regional offices.”

Fifth, the writing off of “all historic debt from 2010.” In March, the Department of Higher Education and Training allocated R967 million to NSFAS for the settling of historic debt owed to universities by 52 514 NSFAS funded continuing students. This, as explained by a statement, was to compensate for the shortfall of the previous funding regime:

“The funding provided by NSFAS for these students was subject to a funding cap and often included an expected family contribution. As a result, the amount of funding provided by NSFAS was sometimes insufficient to cover the total actual fees and cost of study, particularly at universities and programmes with high fees. This resulted in students accruing debt with their institution despite being funded by NSFAS.”

This only applies to debt by continuing students and seemingly debt accrued as a consequence of the previous funding threshold. The memorandum of demands offered by students did not explain the scope of historical debt they would prefer to be written off but did claim that “students that owe cannot access their transcripts.”

SAUS and the SRCs have given NSFAS until 28 June 2019 to respond to their demands.

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