The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) is in the throes of imploding, and the loss today of its board chair, Sizwe Nxasana, is a sign of a very serious weakness at the heart of the Higher Education system.
Mr Nxasana was brought in from his high-powered job as CEO of FirstRand Ltd in 2017 to revamp NSFAS after serious problems began to emerge over a period of about five years. He set about doing so, introducing a new CEO, and a set of radical new systems which were designed to end corruption, boost repayments of loans and simplify the transmission of grants to students.
However right in the middle of this process came the bombshell announcement by President Zuma in December 2017 that free higher education, including grants for fees, food, accommodation and study materials, would be introduced to all existing grantees plus thousands of additional students as from January of this year.
No bureaucracy could survive the ensuing onslaught. The numbers of students, the terms of their grants, the types of payments and the scale of the whole operation changed fundamentally overnight. The system could not cope. To date, there remain thousands of students whose 2018 grants are still not paid.
Without educating our youth, we cannot hope to create jobs. The DA believes that by investing in higher education sector, we can create more job opportunities and economic growth our country desperately needs.
The Minister has been rightly firm in her insistence that the systems be stabilised before the next round of student applications is to start. But it is extremely doubtful whether NSFAS will be able to meet this requirement.
President Ramaphosa was ideally positioned to postpone the introduction of the Free Higher Education system for a year or two, so that the bureaucracy could adjust, when he was elected to the Presidency. However, he did not do so.
The ANC, President Ramaphosa and former President Zuma have shown a degree of recklessness which is unacceptable, and which will cause lasting damage to our students, their Universities and the Higher Education system itself.