Image: Supplied to OUTA by a student
NSFAS should suspend pilot project on student accommodation before it turns into a crisis
Despite earlier warnings by OUTA, it appears that a student accommodation crisis is unfolding on many campuses countrywide and OUTA calls on President Cyril Ramaphosa and the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Higher Education to urgently intervene.
“It is our view that Minister Blade Nzimande should be asked to step aside while a full, independent investigation into allegations of widespread corruption at NSFAS is being conducted,” says Rudie Heyneke, the head of investigations at OUTA. “While we welcome the appointment of prof. Lourens van Staden as interim board chair, we do not believe this is enough to save the financial aid scheme, which will impact thousands of poor students who depend on NSFAS to further their education. It is our view that corrupt syndicates have infiltrated NSFAS and linked to other departments within the department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation and the system of accommodation allocations and accreditation has all but collapsed.”
With at least 11 000 students still awaiting outstanding payments of their monthly allowances and thousands more waiting for NSFAS to settle their outstanding tuition fees at TVET colleges and universities, a fresh crisis is unfolding around the availability of accommodation for NSFAS students.
“OUTA can confirm that we have been alerted to this by concerned accommodation providers who are still – at this very late stage – waiting to hear whether NSFAS has approved their accommodation for returning and new students. We are aware of students in Cape Town who have been spending the last two weeks sleeping on the streets since the NSFAS accommodation portal won’t allow them access to look for available accommodation. Landlords, in turn, are not allowed to give students access to accommodation without pre-approval by NSFAS.”
Heyneke says these inspection and accreditation services were normally handled by accredited service providers on behalf of universities and colleges, but that NSFAS decided to contract this function out to inexperienced and understaffed service providers. All of this happened through a dubious tender process. OUTA published the findings of an investigation report on these matters early in December, calling it a matter for “grave concern” and warning that it is a time bomb waiting to explode. Read the report here.
Heyneke says the situation is a result of interference by NSFAS. The system worked well. Accommodation owners and institutions have had a longstanding relationship, built over many years, that ensured no student got left behind. All of that changed when NSFAS decided to take over the process of accreditation and renting out accommodation. This has already resulted in the Cape Town TVET students being left to fend for themselves.”
OUTA foresees that this situation will only get worse once universities open for the academic year. “NSFAS themselves told Parliament in October last years that they need accommodation for at least 397,000 students at institutions countrywide,” Heyneke explained. “We want them to answer a few very basic questions which they seemed to avoid so far.”
According to Heyneke, NSFAS should be transparent about the number of beds accredited so far. “We also want to know where are these beds – at exactly which institutions and in which areas? Who inspected them? Are the institutions’ own beds included in this number? Did they also have to pay to get their beds registered on the system, and will NSFAS also withhold a percentage of their fees?”
OUTA says it is imperative that students get access to the accommodation portal as a matter of urgency. “TVET colleges started classes on Wednesday, and while students are homeless, they are also missing classes.”
NSFAS must also be transparent about agreements with accommodation owners. “According to our information, many of them haven’t even seen rental agreements, and many are refusing to take part in the pilot project because of all the uncertainty caused how NSFAS is handling the situations. Others refuse to participate in a project where they must now suddenly pay to render a service to students in need. This will cause many more NSFAS students to end up on the streets or living in dangerous areas.”
Heyneke said OUTA is well aware of the outcry by students on social media. “Some have also reached out to us. It is despicable that NSFAS is allowed to gamble with the future of young people who want to better their lives through education. At this stage, the only logical decision would be for NSFAS management to stop the pilot project before this becomes a full-blown accommodation crisis that can easily spill over into student protests.”
According to Heyneke, NSFAS has included 17 out of the 26 public universities in SA on the ‘Pilot Project’ and 22 out of 50 colleges. “Now the portal doesn’t work, the accreditation process is way too slow and accommodation providers and institutions are left in the dark. NSFAS should do a proper pilot project and analyse the outcome first before forcing more than 50% of tertiary institutions to use a system that has not been tested. Allow universities and accommodation owners to continue with previous contracts while NSFAS cleans its house.”
More on OUTA's work on NSFAS is here.
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