Hundreds of concerned students marched on parliament on Wednesday to hand over a memorandum of demands to the Higher Education Department. Students have expressed frustration and dissatisfaction with a new banking system implemented by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) in South Africa.
The system, which aims to disburse funds directly into student NSFAS bank accounts, has caused confusion and withheld funds for many students.
Rejection Of NSFAS Direct Payment System
Students have protested and marched against the new system, highlighting missing NSFAS allowances for essential items like food and transport. The exorbitant bank charges associated with the new system have also been a major concern.
An investigation done by the Organisation Undoing Tax Abuse (Outa) revealed that students are being charged for transacting with their NSFAS bank account at significantly higher charges compared to other banks.
NSFAS, responsible for providing comprehensive bursaries to poor students, initially introduced the direct banking system in Technical Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges, and later expanded it to universities.
Upon its introduction, NSFAS proclaimed that the system would give them control over when payments are made to students and also provides students with certainty that payments will be made. However, this has not been the case for all funded students.
The memorandum of demands includes a list of demands addressed to the Minister and the Parliamentary Committee on Higher Education and calls for greater transparency with regard to SRC consultations, decentralisation of NSFAS for swift solutions and an immediate review of student defunding policies
Student leaders are also calling for the removal of the accommodation cap, support for the "missing middle" students, and consistency in funding criteria.
NSFAS Appeals Decisions
NSFAS is still working to finalise appeals for the 2023 academic year. Student leaders voiced their displeasure with the tardiness of NSFAS' efforts to finalise appeals as students are already in the third term of their studies.
Its assumption of control over the appeals process, which has left numerous beneficiaries in a state of limbo and uncertainty, even at this advanced stage of the year. As we approach the end of the third quarter, thousands of students still await the outcomes of their appeals, with some completely unaware of the status of their funding.
They add the continued delay of appeal decisions has far reaching consequences and places students at risk of evictions from residences and also contributes to the crises of food insecurity.
This dire situation forces students into the distressing predicament of being unable to cover rent, resulting in squatting or even disengagement from their studies.
Rejecting The 60-Credit NSFAS Policy
Student leaders are also strongly against the implementation of the 60 credit policy. This as they believe it places undue burden on students who are already struggling financially. The policy states that students who are studying for less than 60-course credits are no longer eligible for accommodation, living and transport allowance leaving them to cover the costs themselves.
It undermines their ability to cover basic living costs, purchase essential learning materials, and maintain their mental and physical well-being.
They added that the removal of the 60-credit policy would help ensure that all students have equal opportunities to succeed academically without compromising their overall quality of life.
Immediate Review To The Defunding Of Student
Student leaders are also calling for an immediate revision of the NSFAS defunding policy.
They explain that numerous deserving students were abruptly defunded from receiving the comprehensive bursary provided by NSFAS without proper recourse or due process. This has left students without money to pay for their studies leading many at risk of discontinuing their education journey.
This unjust practice not only hampers their academic pursuits but also perpetuates inequality by hindering access to education.
Removal Of The Accommodation Cap
In 2023, NSFAS announced a cap of R45 000 on the accommodation allowance for NSFAS students. The cap raised concern among students who are being charged rent in excess of the cap leaving them to cover the balance or face eviction.
The draconian NSFAS Accommodation cap of this year must crumble without delay. We reject a uniform approach to capping and demand instead a nuanced evaluation for each institution, rooted in its unique context.
Student leaders have called for the department to adopt an approach that accounts for the context of each institution.
Higher Education Response
Last week, Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande acknowledged the issues and condemned violent protests at campuses around South Africa.
He stated that NSFAS negotiated for a lower monthly bank charge of R12 and assured beneficiaries they could use their bank cards across South Africa. The NSFAS board chairperson, Ernest Khosa, emphasised the implementation of a student-centred model to streamline processes and alleviate delays.
Despite challenges, approximately 86% of paid students have managed to authenticate themselves and receive their allowances through the new system.
The NSFAS Board disputed reports that incorrect allowance amounts have been paid to NSFAS beneficiaries. They labelled these claims as misleading and untrue.
This is a developing story and may be updated to include the latest available information.