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‘Desperate’ worry over R10bn student aid gap


Universities South Africa warns of yet another massive shortfall for 2022 academic year

The head of South Africa’s university governing body has raised a red flag over a massive funding shortfall at the National Student Financial Aid Scheme.

Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of Universities South Africa, told a 1 December meeting of Parliament’s portfolio committee that the NSFAS may need another R10 billion (US$630 million) to meet its 2022 commitments.

South Africa’s student aid scheme has struggled to keep up with demand after former president Jacob Zuma promised in 2017 that all needy students would receive free education. The resulting overhaul of higher education financing has been criticised, including by higher education and science minister Blade Nzimande, for being too fast and creating knock-on problems.

Bawa said his organisation is “desperately hoping” that the Treasury will find the money to plug the gap, rather than “pass the buck” and force the Department of Higher Education and Training to find the money. That happened earlier this year when university subsidies were raided to pay half of NSFAS’ nearly R6bn shortfall.

South Africa’s science minister Blade Nzimande confirmed the 2022 NSFAS shortfall in a 30 November response to a Parliamentary question. “Engagement is ongoing within the government budget processes in relation to this matter,” he said.

NSFAS representatives blamed the looming shortfall on ballooning enrollment numbers and the Covid-19 pandemic at the 1 December committee hearing. “Discussions are underway at DHET and Treasury to source the required funds,” said Nthuseng Mphahlele, chief operating officer of NSFAS.

Bawa said the NSFAS shortfall had created concern in university administrations about the long-term sustainability of university subsidies and infrastructure funding.

Adding to universities’ woes is the continuing presence of huge student debt. Bawa said the latest estimate stands at R11bn, which universities cannot afford to write off.