Home Opinion and Features No quick fix: ‘NSFAS needs to be re-imagined’

No quick fix: ‘NSFAS needs to be re-imagined’

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OPINION: Higher education expert and former Universities South Africa chief executive Professor Ahmed Bawa believes the National Student Financial Aid Scheme needs to be re-imagined in order to improve the embattled entity’s systems and operations.

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HIGHER education expert and former Universities South Africa (USAf) chief executive Professor Ahmed Bawa believes the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) needs to be re-imagined in order to improve the embattled entity’s systems and operations.

Bawa was reacting to the NSFAS turnaround strategy where consequence management was implemented and new appointments were made in some troubled departments, including IT and communications.

Parliament’s portfolio committee on higher education had bemoaned the challenges at these departments and advised that they be dealt with urgently.

On Monday, NSFAS announced that Minister Blade Nzimande’s spokesperson, Ishmael Mnisi, will become its new head of communications starting on December 1. Mnisi is expected to serve as a senior manager of corporate communication and will also take the reins as NSFAS spokesperson.

The board hailed Mnisi’s 23 years of experience as a communicator.

“The board believes that his wealth of experience will improve the relationship between NSFAS and the media and its stakeholders,” it said.

According to Bawa, the entity needed to be re-established, which was a fundamental matter, rather than to just improve communication.

“Mnisi is effective at communication. His knowledge of the higher education system will assist with the tasks there. However, my main thought is that I don’t think this is about communication but the nature of the entity and the fact that NSFAS needs to be re-imagined. It was originally set up as a kind of NGO dealing with a few million of rand but now handles close to R50 billion,” he said.

Bawa said the crisis that was seen at NSFAS this academic year, including the late opening of the 2024 applications, seemed like the entity didn’t have the students’ best interests at heart.

NSFAS announced that funding applications for 2024 are expected to open next week.

“An example is the debacle of the direct payment system in which NSFAS was warned by many stakeholders on how it implements and tests. I cannot see that system being easily fixed in the current structure of NSFAS. It’s very unlikely that challenges faced this year will be fixed for the start of next year. This has been done before and assisted,” he said.

NSFAS this week confirmed funding applications for 2024 were expected to open on November 21 and close on January 31, 2024.

Nzimande explained that this earlier closing date is intended to provide the beneficiary with faster turnaround times for decision-making, aligning with the financial eligibility assessment process which requires updated South African Revenue Service (Sars) information.

“NSFAS is awaiting Sars completion of its tax period and to enable NSFAS to have the necessary and updated information available during our application season.

“It is also important that students note that they don’t need results when they are entering post-school education and training for the first time. Furthermore, NSFAS is engaged in conversation with the Department of Basic Education to improve the application validation processes, including verifying parental relationships, and all these improvements will ensure that funding decisions are confirmed timeously,” NSFAS said.

Nzimande said Sassa beneficiaries will receive immediate funding decisions, no additional supporting documents will be required except for the learners with disabilities and all rejected applicants will have the opportunity to appeal.

According to the South African Union of Students, NSFAS was expected to open the applications on October 1.

“This is not only a cause for concern but a crisis, because it guarantees us that NSFAS will most definitely not be ready for the start of the academic year 2024,” they said.

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