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HIGHER EDUCATION

Universities struggle with ‘perennial’ NSFAS issues as they focus on admission and registration

Universities struggle with ‘perennial’ NSFAS issues as they focus on admission and registration
Illustrative image: Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande (Photo: ER Lombard / Gallo Images) | Wikimedia)

Several universities have highlighted NSFAS challenges as the busy admission and registration period for the 2024 academic year gets under way.

Universities have raised concerns about the payout of allowances for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) beneficiaries.

Daily Maverick approached the country’s 26 universities last week to ask whether any challenges had cropped up during the admissions and registration period, as universities place thousands of applicants from the hundreds of thousands who apply.

NSFAS

Students on a protest march to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme’s head office in Cape Town on 24 May 2023. (Photo: Gallo Images / Brenton Geach)

Some universities said they were still dealing with issues such as outstanding NSFAS payments from 2023 and waiting for NSFAS to finalise students’ funding status for 2024.

‘Pressure on cash flow’

University of the Free State (UFS) spokesperson Lacea Loader said the university was in constant contact with NSFAS on matters related to student funding. Loader said there were still outstanding payments from 2023 from NSFAS to the UFS.

“This puts pressure on the university’s cash flow – as is the case with other institutions in the country,” Loader said.

Read more in Daily Maverick: NSFAS blames universities for failure to pay students as promised

She said the university’s management was constantly engaging with the Institutional Student Representative Council (ISRC) on funding-related matters, including challenges experienced with the outstanding NSFAS funding for 2023.

She said that a few years ago the university had established a working group that meets with the ISRC to discuss matters related to student funding and to find amicable solutions.

“The working group has been engaging with students regularly since the beginning of 2024, and some concessions have been made to assist students to register,” she said.

She said the registration of senior students began on 29 January 2024 while first-time students could register from 5 to 9 February 2024.

“Therefore, it is not possible at this stage to provide information about the status of admissions at the UFS, as it is still at an early stage.”

Loader said the university was unable to allow walk-ins because of the large number of applications for admission received for the 2024 academic year.

Final funding status unclear

North-West University (NWU) spokesperson Louis Jacobs said the university had been constantly in conversation with NSFAS to ensure issues were addressed as they arose.

“A very big amount regarding outstanding 2023 payments from NSFAS was experienced, but nearly the whole amount was recently received,” Jacobs said.

He said the main issue at this stage was to receive feedback from NSFAS on the final funding status of first-year students and returning students. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: More than 87,000 students could lose their 2024 funding due to NSFAS budget cuts

Jacobs said the university’s principal and vice-chancellor, Professor Bismark Tyobeka, is the chair of a special task team recently introduced by Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande.

Tyobeka will work with NSFAS and the department’s representatives to try to resolve the NSFAS issues.

“Once again, the NWU is actively involved in the sector to try and assist all the students and institutions and get outstanding matters resolved. The capacity for NSFAS to pay allowances is also an unresolved issue still.  Furthermore, the NSFAS guidelines were not released yet,” he said.

He said NWU did not accept walk-ins, and applications closed on 30 September 2023.

The university could accommodate 11,717 contact first-year students and had received more than 180,000 applications, he said. Almost 10,000 first-year contact students were already either fully or provisionally registered.

Jacobs said registration commenced on 22 January 2024 and was still continuing.

Defunding problem’

Vaal University of Technology (VUT) spokesperson Kediemetse Mokotsi said the university was still dealing with NSFAS’s decision to fund thousands of students in 2023 before later saying they were ineligible.

Mokotsi said 2,094 students appeared on the funded list shared by NSFAS with VUT in March 2023, but they were then defunded in the middle of the year.

VUT had disbursed books and meal allowances to some of these students, she said.

Some of NSFAS’s reasons to defund these students included missing documents, poor student performance during their studies and dual registration after it was found that some students had registered at more than one institution.

Mokotsi said NSFAS was supposed to have considered these issues during the funding decision process in early 2023, but NSFAS embarked on the remediation process to rectify their incorrect funding decision in the middle of 2023.

“The process compromised students and it’s at the expense of universities. The affected cohort of students were supposed to be rejected by NSFAS when assessing academic and financial eligibility of students. NSFAS action has increased VUT student debt because students were allowed to register and access rooms at the residences at the beginning of the year. This matter is not resolved to date, despite numerous engagements with NSFAS,” she said.

Another challenge, she said, was students who did not receive their full 2023 allowances from the service providers appointed by NSFAS.

She said VUT and the Student Representative Council (SRC) were in talks with NSFAS on the matter.

“The response received was that, NSFAS board is deliberating on the challenges because they are affecting the entire higher education sector. Sadly, we haven’t received any positive response from NSFAS.”

Read more in Daily Maverick: How NSFAS tapes knocked Blade Nzimande against the ropes

She said the SRC had raised these matters with NSFAS at various meetings and it had even visited NSFAS offices in Cape Town.

“Sadly, the matter is not resolved to date.”

Despite these challenges, Mokotsi said registration processes were running smoothly. She said 5,001 students had been admitted and registration for returning students was still in progress.

She said 2,698 first-year NSFAS-funded students had registered to date.

“The registration process is still ongoing; the number will increase,” she said.

Students must acknowledge debt

University of Johannesburg (UJ) spokesperson Herman Esterhuizen said NSFAS-funded students with outstanding debts would be allowed to register.

“However, for 2024, NSFAS-funded students with pre-existing non-NSFAS-related debts must complete an Acknowledgement of Debt before they can register,” said.

He said the registration process for first-year and returning students was continuing. The number of undergraduate first-year applicants stood at about 283,000.

“However, considering that each application allows for two study choices, the number of overall applications is around 600,000,” he said.

The intake for undergraduate first-year students in 2024 was limited to 10,500 according to the 2024 enrolment cap approved by the department.

Esterhuizen said UJ’s registration opened on 19 January 2024 and would close on 9 February 2024, depending on the study programmes and availability of space.

Although no walk-ins for late applications were permitted, Esterhuizen said UJ acknowledged the significance of providing opportunities to applicants who might have missed the application deadline.

As a result, he said a late enquiry system had been set up for new undergraduate students on the UJ website from 19-25 January 2024.

Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT) spokesperson Lauren Kansley said the institution had space for 8,913 first-year students and 5,727 had enrolled.

“Walk-ins are only permitted once the wait-listed individuals, who applied on time, have been worked through. And walk-ins are only in courses that have space,” she said.

Kansley said 500,000 applications had been received across the board. There were no NSFAS-related issues, she said.

‘Discussions’

University of Western Cape (UWC) spokesperson Gasant Abarder said the university engaged with NSFAS on an ongoing basis about a range of issues.

“This occurs at a sectoral level,” Abarder said.

However, he declined to comment on the issues that were being discussed with NSFAS. But he said UWC continuously engaged with the SRC on issues related to NSFAS and financial clearance.

He said UWC had already commenced registration. Walk-in applications could not be accommodated because of the volume of applications, he said.

UWC was expecting an intake of 4,650 first-year undergraduate students.

‘Perennial problem’

Stellenbosch University (SU) said NSFAS bursary applications for 2024 were still open and the deadline had been extended to 15 February.

Last year, SU had 4,971 funded and registered NSFAS students.  

“NSFAS funding issues have been a perennial problem at institutions across the country in recent years,” SU said.

SU said it supported students in dealing with challenges and would continue to engage with the relevant entities, including the SRC and NSFAS, to work towards long-term solutions related to funding. 

The university said it could not consider walk-in applications.

For 2024, SU had received 88,085 undergraduate first-year applications and nearly 21,000 applications for postgraduate study. That excluded undergraduate students who had applied for postgraduate study in 2023.    

SU said it had about 5,600 places for first-year undergraduate students and registration was still under way.

University of South Africa (Unisa) said more than 570,000 applications had been received.

“From the qualifying pool and the number of spaces available, 264,219 offers were made. Of these 172,041 were accepted so far,” Unisa said.

Unisa’s target for first-time intake was 45,000 students, it said.

Unisa said 20,627 students were fully registered and another 38,000 were provisionally registered and needed to pay the minimum registration fee.

As of the end of January, Unisa said it had fully registered 37,472 first-time NSFAS applicants.

“Where challenges are experienced, the university prefers to address those directly with NSFAS and the student leadership,” Unisa said.

NSFAS did not respond to specific questions at the time of writing, despite acknowledging questions from Daily Maverick sent on Wednesday, 31 January.

But, in a joint statement issued with the South African Union of Students on Thursday, 1 February, NSFAS said that after discussions on the state of readiness for the beginning of this academic year, they agreed to extend the bursary application process to 15 February. 

According to the statement, 1,745,226 applications were received this year; 940,682 were provisionally funded; 269,915 were awaiting evaluation; 48,643 had been withdrawn by students; 232 559 were in progress; and 136,531 were incomplete as students had created profiles, but had failed to submit them. DM

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