'It’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul,' says Nzimande on increasing student funding in 2022

Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande. File image
SOblade2708 Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande. File image
Image: Kopano Tlape/GCIS

As SA prepares for the 2022 academic year, higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande has poured cold water on chances of increasing student funding despite growing demand.

Government reprioritised more than R6bn to student funding in March, at the height of the student fees protests.

This means government will spend R42.1bn on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) this year, up by nearly R7bn from almost R35bn in 2020 and R32bn the year before.

Addressing parliament's portfolio committee on higher education on Wednesday, Nzimande attributed government’s inability to increase funding to budget cuts, among other things.

“On funding the post-school education and training system, this continues to be one of the most complex and difficult challenges, especially given the very tight fiscus that, as government and the country, we are in. The budget cuts, they really cause a serious threat to some of the things we want to do.”

Although Nzimande’s department was engaging with other stakeholders, including National Treasury, he admitted government could not increase student funding.

“This thing is unsustainable. We engaged with Treasury to this effect and also it’s like robbing Peter to pay Paul, to be quite honest, because it is no use increasing student funding when we are continuously underfunding the system, because we are, in essence, funding students to be part of a system that will increasingly be unable to address their legitimate needs and expectations.”

There was an estimated R10bn shortfall in the NSFAS bursary scheme because of increased demand for funding in the 2021 academic year.

“We are engaged with the minister of finance, the department of higher education and training, and Treasury to deal with this matter so that we can start the new academic year with more certainty,” he said.

NSFAS COO Nthuseng Mphahlele said the number of funded students had increased by 7% in 2021 compared to 2020. This was expected to grow in 2022 because of an increased demand for NSFAS funding as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“NSFAS has modelled budget implications for future demand for bursaries with associated costs projected to be R10bn in 2022. Discussions are under way [with] National Treasury to source the required funds.”

The NSFAS board was working hard to ensure it operates as an effective and efficient entity, fulfilling its core mandate in the best possible way.

A new application process had been developed and existing processes reviewed to enable prospective students to make applications until January.  

The new system will be capable of providing real-time funding eligibility decisions for students who are first-time entrants to tertiary education and linked to SA Social Security Agency (Sassa) grant funding.

“One of the areas extensively reviewed are processes and enabling technologies centred around the organisation's ability to assess, confirm and communicate eligibility decisions to students,” said Mphahlele. 

Nzimande said the Covid-19 pandemic had worsened the challenges the department faced, some related to the previous academic year which had to be extended and the number of students qualifying for funding due to parents having lost their jobs. 

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