Cabinet has agreed that funding should be reprioritised from the Department of Higher Education and Training budget, in order to ensure that all deserving National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students receive funding support for the 2021 academic year.

Unpacking Cabinet’s decision on NSFAS funding during a post-Cabinet media briefing held in Tshwane on Thursday, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said however that further reprioritisation can only be considered as part of the Medium Term Budget process of government, which takes place later this year.

“This decision has been taken in the context of funding cuts and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this decision, NSFAS will be able to release funding decisions, and the registration process at public universities can continue as planned,” Nzimande said.

The Minister reiterated that no NSFAS qualifying students have been affected by these delays, as universities had agreed to extend the registration period to ensure that students without funding decisions would not be prevented from accessing a place that they qualify for.

“NSFAS will now be able to release funds for new students qualifying for NSFAS bursary support. As I already indicated, continuing students who meet the qualifying criteria have already been allowed to register,” Nzimande said.

Review of student funding policy

Cabinet has also agreed that a comprehensive review of the student funding policy of government is urgently required, and has instructed the Department of Higher Education and Training to immediately commence with this work and report back to Cabinet.

Nzimande said the purpose of this process will be to look carefully at the funding requirements to support students in financial need in the post-school education and training system, to model the holistic requirements of students, including those from poor and working class backgrounds, as well as the missing middle.

He said that government is very concerned about the issue of growing student debt in the system, as are the universities, and this issue will also be considered as part of the policy review.

Acknowledgement of debt agreements

Among the demands that are being received by government and universities relate to the debt of students who may not be funded by NSFAS, but struggling to register because they have not been able to pay debts, and are doing well academically.

Nzimande noted that in some instances, universities the have made arrangements with such students to sign acknowledgement of debt agreements.

He said he will be engaging with the university leadership teams to explore ways in which they can try to ensure that final year students who are on track to graduate and are performing well are able to register for their final year through such acknowledgment of debt arrangements.

“What should be clear is that government is firmly committed to implement the policy of providing fee free (fully subsidised) higher education support to students from working and poor backgrounds, whilst also putting a sustainable mechanism in place to support students from the so-called ‘missing middle’ income bracket,” the Minister said.

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