News24.com | Despite shortfall, NSFAS will continue to fund returning students, says Nzimande

  • Students at higher education and training institutions have been concerned about delays in NSFAS funding for them to register.
  • The concerns resulted in disruptions in registration processes at the University of Fort Hare. 
  • Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande says they are facing a shortfall in their funding for 2021, and that this was impacting on first-time entrants. 

Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande has announced that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is going to be funding all returning beneficiaries who meet the academic and relevant criteria to continue their studies.  

On Monday, Nzimande briefed the nation in Pretoria about decisions taken on student funding at public institutions.

NSFAS had been unable to confirm funding eligibility for prospective first-year students at public universities for the 2021 academic year. 

Nzimande said NSFAS was facing a shortfall on its funding for the year, which meant it was unable to confirm funding for new university students.

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The delay also put pressure on institutions which were unable to finalise their admissions and registration processes. 

He said:

“There are a few reasons why we have this shortfall. First is because of Covid-19. We had to continue to pay NSFAS allowances, even at the time when universities were closed, as part of students’ access to multimodal teaching and learning. This means we had an extended the academic year, which we did not allocate additional money for.

“Secondly, we had budget cuts across government departments. Thirdly, because of the deteriorating economic situation, many NSFAS applicants who were not previously meeting the funding requirements for NSFAS, now do. Due to Covid-19, a majority of them qualifies because their parents lost their jobs in the process,” Nzimande said.

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He said the shortfall challenge was not only due to Covid-19, but had started long before that. 

Registration at the University of Fort Hare in the Eastern Cape commenced on 1 March, but was disrupted due to the funding challenges, spokesperson Tandi Mapukata said. The process at the university would resume on Tuesday.

R35bn budget not enough

The minister said the usual processes would apply, with institutions sharing relevant registration data and information with NSFAS to confirm the lists of those students who were funded.

Director-General Gwebinkundla Qonde said NSFAS had a R35-billion budget, which had to be used for “unintended circumstances as a result of Covid-19 because the academic year had to be extended”. 

“But currently the budget is R35 billion… is not enough, it is a shortfall and that is being attended to by the executive authority in the department,” he said. 

Qonde said there were 184 315 available spaces for new students across the sector. 

Nzimande said, after consulting with various universities through Universities South Africa (USAf), it was agreed that the institutions extend their registration period for first-years by two weeks so that no student would be disadvantaged by the finalisation of funding.

Nzimande added that the department was aware that the two-week delay to conclude registration had put pressure on institutions, meaning that 2021 – just like 2020 – would be a shorter academic year. 

“We hope it won’t be shorter than it happened last year as we hopefully are able to deal better with Covid-19, including vaccination. However, it is better to delay for two weeks and ensure that NSFAS students are not disadvantaged than to have two weeks advantage in terms of the academic year and excluding poor students,” he said.

Universities were expected to come up with methods to ensure they complete the academic year, despite the late start, Nzimande added.

The department said it would host a detailed briefing on the state of reopening of higher education and training institutions.

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