Monday, 15 March 2021

Pretoria: Higher Education and Training Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, says the department is not in a financial position to be able to support institutions to clear all the debt of fee-paying students.

Responding to the South African Union of Students (SAUS) letter of demands, Nzimande acknowledged that there are many students whose families struggle to keep up with fee payments, and many families who have also been negatively affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, given the difficult fiscal situation, the Minister said all government departments, including Higher Education and Training, have been subject to budget reductions in 2020 and 2021.

“I am aware that many institutions are doing what they can to assist students in need, and to allow them to make payment arrangements to be able to register, where this is possible.

“However, institutions also have to remain financially sustainable in order to continue to operate effectively, and financial decisions are made at the level of university councils.

“The historic debt of National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) qualifying students is being addressed through a process between NSFAS and institutions.

“NSFAS-qualifying students with historic debt are able to register when they sign an Acknowledgement of Debt (AOD) form, while the process is underway,” Nzimande said.

Postgraduate funding to be addressed in policy review

Regarding the immediate provision of post-graduate funding, the Minister said the department is advocating for advanced diploma qualifications to be included in the funding framework.

Nzimande acknowledged that postgraduate funding is an issue that requires attention, as there is limited funding available from the National Research Foundation (NRF).

However, he noted that in 2021, the new NRF policy considers funding of students who were NSFAS recipients.

“This is an important matter that needs to be addressed in the policy review process that will be undertaken in 2021 by the department, as outlined in my media statement on 11 March 2021,” Nzimande said.

The Minister reiterated that all first-time entering students will be able to register following the commitment to reprioritise funding from the department to address the NSFAS shortfall for 2021.

First laptop deliveries to be made in April

On the provision of laptops for students, the Minister said that NSFAS has placed a first order for laptops, and these will be made available to students, in line with the agreed processes, as soon as they are available.

NSFAS has indicated that the first deliveries will be made in April 2021.

Nzimande has also ordered that all student allowances be provided in March when the academic year starts, and landlords are already harassing students for payment.

“These processes are being managed by individual universities, in line with their registration dates. However, NSFAS funding to students is only released once students are registered and confirmed for funding.

“It is also important to note that NSFAS will receive its first tranche from the fiscus on 1 April 2021, in line with National Treasury’s processes.”

Institutions reminded to adhere to enrolment plan

The Minister said the department works together with institutions to agree on an enrolment plan.

The current enrolment plan covers the period 2020 to 2025.

Nzimande reminded institutions to adhere as closely as possible to their enrolment plans, as they guide both the funding of the system, as well as ensure that they have the capacity to support quality education for their students.

“Should the system expand beyond the agreed enrolments it will be unable to provide effective teaching and learning. The matter relating to UNISA’s [University of South Africa] decision to reduce its enrolments based on over enrolments in 2020 is currently in the courts,” he said.

Academic records

Nzimande emphasised that students must be provided with their academic records and certificates, even those who owe the universities.

He said all institutions have confirmed that they have mechanisms in place to ensure that students with debt are able to receive academic records and certificates of completion for the purposes of further study and accessing employment opportunities.

“The department works directly with institutions, where necessary, to facilitate queries on these matters. I agree that no student should be prevented from accessing employment or other opportunities because they have outstanding fees,” the Minister said.

Higher Education, universities reach fee compact

Higher Education and Training Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, says the department and universities have reached another fee compact to ensure fee increases for the 2021 academic year are kept at affordable levels.

The compact is also aimed at ensuring the sustainability of universities.

Responding to the South African Union of Students (SAUS) letter of demands, which includes a 0% fee increase for the 2021 academic year, Nzimande said institutions rely on student fees for their core operating income.

The Minister, however, said additional funding is not available from government to support a 0% fee increase.

“Fee consultations take place at institutional level. In addition, student leaders are represented on university councils, where budgeting and fee decisions are taken.

“Institutions have to remain financially sustainable in order to meet their operational commitments and their academic responsibilities,” Nzimande said.

Return of students to campuses

On the students’ demand for a 100% return of all students to campuses under lockdown level 1, Nzimande said students who have challenges with connectivity should be able to return to campuses, where they are able to access the relevant connectivity and support from institutions.

However, the Minister emphasised that individual institutions must manage these processes in line with their own resources and strategies, and the ability to provide a safe environment for the return of students and staff, given the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I will be releasing directions to support and guide institutions in managing the return of students and the start of the 2021 academic year,” Nzimande said.

NSFAS working hard to finalise appeals

Giving an update on NSFAS appeals, Nzimande said NSFAS is working hard to finalise appeals, so that students are not prevented from registering in time to start the 2021 academic year.

The Minister urged student structures to continue engaging with the management teams of all public universities, using the communication structures that are already in place.

He said many of the matters raised by student leaders require that students and university management work together at institutional level.

“Many of the issues that have been raised will require careful consideration and planning at national level, and will be addressed through the work that the Department of Higher Education and Training, will be doing in collaboration with other government departments, including National Treasury, the Department of Science and Innovation and the Department of Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation.” Nzimande said.