NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) is the mechanism the majority of South African tertiary students rely on to complete their post-school studies. They can apply for a bursary or student loan to finance their studies.
The financial assistance is granted provided specific conditions are met by the student. The most stringent of these is a ‘needs test’, which evaluates the student and their family’s financial means to pay for their studies. Based on the outcomes of this evaluation, the Scheme determines how much financial assistance the student needs.
The money allocated to the student is paid directly to the tertiary institution. After the payment of fees, the remainder is disbursed to the student as a living allowance, catering for their day-to-day expenses, books and transportation. Students living in residences can also apply for these costs to be covered.
The Scheme is currently undergoing a review process due to widespread complaints about the so-called ‘missing middle’, a group of students from middle-class homes whose parents cannot afford to pay 100% of their fees. To this end, the means test is being re-evaluated to make it more inclusive.
Tertiary Institutions close early
The recent events in South Africa surrounding the coronavirus and its spread have led to the closure of tertiary institutions, such as university and TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) colleges. This came after President Cyril Ramaphosa announced a national state of disaster on Sunday, 16 March 2020. The early recess commenced on Wednesday, 18 March 2020, with most institutions moving their planned breaks forward to account for the recess.
Those institutions that had exams coming up in March and April had to postpone the assessments until after the reopening. Students had to vacate residences, which was met with protest and discontent. However, the government insisted on compliance with the regulations, and only foreign students and those who could prove they had nowhere else to go have remained, with universities having sourced alternative accommodations for them.
On Monday, 23 March 2020, the President stood before the nation again to announce further measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. Among them was a national lockdown due to start at midnight on Thursday, 26 March 2020 and end on Thursday, 16 April 2020. This announcement immediately superseded the prior set date for return.
NSFAS implications during institution closure and the lockdown
Students making use of NSFAS services were immediately concerned about how the shutdown would affect their financial aid packages. Their concerns intensified further after the lockdown announcement.
There have been instances when universities and TVET colleges have excluded students due to outstanding fees, and students worried that this would happen to them if the NSFAS payment system were to fail.
The next concern was living allowances and whether they would continue to be paid during the lockdown, which might become protracted if the 21 days do not yield the desired result.
Many students had completed their NSFAS applications at the beginning of the year, especially walk-in students from January. The processing of these applications is not yet complete, and neither is the appeals process for those students denied funding.
The Minister for Higher Education, Science and Technology, Blade Nzimande, appeared before the press on Tuesday, 24 March 2020, as a member of the security cluster. In his statement, he clarified several issues affecting students at higher education institutions, including those about NSFAS.
Here are some of the critical answers Nzimande provided to question surrounding NSFAS:
- What will happen to students whose NSFAS applications haven’t been processed?
Nzimande responded by saying that he had an updated report from NSFAS Administrator, Dr Randall Carolissen, who assured him that nearly all applications had passed the processing phase for both universities and TVET colleges. The scheme has improved its processing times this year.
- Will NSFAS payments continue during the lockdown?
The Minister assured students that NSFAS payment processes would continue as usual despite the lockdown. There are students who have not yet received their allowances, and they should contact NSFAS immediately to log a query.
When students return to their studies, they will not face the prospect of dealing with unpaid fees accounts. NSFAS has put contingency plans in place to ensure that payments continue without interruption.
NSFAS and higher learning institutions will continue to work together closely during the lockdown to make sure that students receive the necessary allowances and support.
- How can students reach NSFAS during the lockdown?
Phone: 08000 67327 (a toll-free number)
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for general information, email@example.com for queries regarding payments and balances and firstname.lastname@example.org for other enquiries.
Post: Private Bag X1, Plumstead, 7801
Plans for students during the lockdown and closure
The Minister has encouraged all institutions to explore digital platforms as a means of teaching during this challenging time. However, they should ensure inclusivity, so that disadvantaged students can access the content as well.
Additional contingency plans will be put in place to ensure that teaching and learning can continue should the government extend the lockdown period. The approach will vary from one institution to another.
What the lockdown means for students and citizens alike
During the lockdown, movement is severely restricted. For the first time since the dying days of apartheid, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) will patrol the streets of the country.
While some citizens have claimed that the government has been excessive in its measures and is curbing their human rights, it is acting well within its ambit as specified by the National Disaster Act. South Africa has a progressive constitution with its entrenched human rights. However, the constitution also allows for the limitation of rights under exceptional circumstances, a national disaster being one of them.
While the lockdown is set to end on 16 April 2020, that is no guarantee that classes will resume immediately. The lockdown aims to flatten the infection curve of the coronavirus. If this is not achieved within the 21 days, the President will contemplate the prospect of a prolonged lockdown by the President and his crisis task team. Concerned students and parents worry about losing the entire academic year owing to the outbreak of COVID-19.