OP-ED

NSFAS’s decision to pay students cash has decimated textbook sales – the result could be an academic tsunami

By Mohamed Kharwa 28 August 2019

From Cape Town to Alice, Siyabuswa and beyond, it appears students have spent their textbook funding on other needs and wants, says the writer.(Photo: Stephen Koigi / Flickr)

Concerned role players in the academic publishing and bookselling sector have formed an Alliance for Academic Success comprising more than 30 stakeholders with decades of student experience and data after noticing an alarming change in South African students’ consumer behaviour earlier in 2019. More precisely: far fewer students have bought their prescribed textbooks in the first half of 2019 than in previous years.

Initial sales data for the first six months of 2019 have backed up our earlier concerns. In some university bookstores, the unit sales of academic books have dropped by up to 91% compared to the first half of 2018. This phenomenon isn’t isolated to a handful of stores – it alarmingly appears nationally. And most worrying of all is that stores near institutions catering to historically disadvantaged financial aid students are most affected.

But from Cape Town to Alice, Siyabuswa and beyond, it appears students have spent their textbook funding on other needs and wants.

The Alliance for Academic Success is concerned that the quality and skills and even the number of graduates our higher education institutions develop will be directly impacted. Certainly, textbooks alone are not the sum of academic performance or the singular solution, but they form an integral part of higher learning just as they are a right for learners in basic education.

What could the reason be for this precipitous decline in the sale of textbooks?

The unexpected change in the way the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) disburses funding for book allowances could explain this unexpected change – and be the reason for these unintended consequences.

Whereas for more than 20 years the NSFAS textbook allowance was ringfenced and could only be spent on textbooks and essential learning materials, in 2019 – for the first time – the allowance was paid in cash directly to students’ accounts.

The decline in book sales can only mean that vast sums of public money intended for students to buy textbooks and learning materials are not being used for this purpose. It is either being spent on items other than academic learning materials or students have been pressured to remit money home to friends and family.

Some student leaders have already raised concerns that the cash allowances are not being spent on books and learning materials and while appearing to be a popular change in policy, the unintended consequences need to be addressed.

Why the sudden change in policy?

The ostensible aim was to enable students to have greater freedom and develop their own sense of financial responsibility. This is laudable and should be supported, but also needs to be taught and balanced with practical financial controls and responsible student behaviour.

Our neighbouring countries have been down this road and the case of Botswana is instructive – where in 2017, previously ringfenced book allowances were paid out in cash directly to student bank accounts.

Within a year, sales of prescribed university textbooks in Botswana had fallen by 90%. This collapse was matched by a decline in pass rates. Failure rates for first-years soared and drop-out rates for the first semester increased by 24%.

Our interactions with university academics indicate this is impacting on academic outcomes in 2019. We believe this needs further interrogation.

It is universally recognised that textbooks are essential to student academic success. In our tech-focused world, the mental image of a student, armed with textbooks from a campus bookstore as the bridging, supportive tools they require to help navigate the pressures of higher education, is a compelling one.

Corporate and public bursars, like NSFAS, provide textbook allowances specifically for this purpose – to ensure students are fully supported in their studies.

The unintended consequences extend further: without a vibrant, competitive and active textbook market, our goals of developing and disseminating local knowledge and decolonized content are under threat. Without students accessing updated, high-quality local content, there will be little incentive to develop it.

The combined skills and experience of the members of the alliance lead us to believe that the systems facilitating the spending of NSFAS funds can be refined in a manner that maximises students’ freedom of choice while still enhancing academic outcomes. Importantly, this can be done efficiently to ensure responsible spending of our limited and ever-precious public funds for their intended higher education purpose.

We share a common goal with role-players in higher education: to ensure that students graduate in their chosen fields. As critical voices in the knowledge industry, our alliance is determined and looking to constructively engage with all relevant decision-makers to play our part in the balancing of student choice, the effective use of public funds, and academic success. DM

Mohamed Kharwa is the convener of the Alliance for Academic Success.

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