At their first sitting for 2019 in March, the Universities South Africa (USAf) Board of Directors invited Dr Randall Carolissen, Executive Administrator at National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), to present an update on NSFAS processes.
Dr Carolissen mentioned that, in keeping with his mandate (received in August 2018) to resolve the 2017 backlog; to sort out 2018 issues and stabilise the system for 2019 and beyond, he and the NSFAS executive management team had prioritised stabilising the system for 2018 and 2019 before they could restructure NSFAS for the medium to long term.
In a nutshell, Dr Carolissen said he had found NSFAS a mess run on poor technological infrastructure and characterised by poor governanceandmanagement. He explained that the decision to disburse students’ allowances directly into their bank accounts was being rolled out despite a certain level of discomfort as NSFAS was treading on untested terrain.
The NSFAS Executive Administrator said even though, overall, he was happy that NSFAS was giving students a chance to manage their own financial affairs, and even though, overall, this was found to be working, they also discovered a degree of abuse of this system. NSFAS was, as a result, putting remedial measures in place to clean up the system, both at students’ and institutional levels.
At the student level, NSFAS had identified a need to educate students on responsible budgeting. While the student financial scheme worked out modalities to achieve this within universities, they had signed an agreement with the Department of Basic Education to invest additional funding into the life orientation course in basic schooling to include NSFAS matters, especiallyl in Grade 12. “Before any learner sits for the National School Certificate (NSC) exam, they should know what it takes to apply for financial aid for their tertiary studies and be familiar with the NSFAS application process.”
At the institutional level, he said NSFAS was working on a mechanism to improve information flow to universities’ front-desk service points. “We’ve found, despite our efforts to keep universities informed about policy changes regarding students allowances, that information did not translate into better understanding and accurate information-sharing at students’ service points. There was a lot of confusion.” He also added that efficiencies in NSFAS depended a great deal on data articulation. “Yet we still find registration data trickling in slowly.” He said even though NSFAS had received a good amount of registration data by the end of March, a significant number of institutions was still lagging behind. He emphasised the importance of universities working closely with NSFAS on this front.
He also alerted the USAf Board to the fact that the Minister of Higher Education and Training was increasingly expecting NSFAS to play a much bigger role beyond that of disbursing student funds. To that end, NSFAS was establishing research capacity to inform and substantiate their policy propositions to the DHET better on matters such as student accommodation, historic debt, etc.
Furthermore, NSFAS had appointed a group of accountants to reconcile data at both student and institutional level, essentially to establish whether all funds disbursed were going where they were meant to go. “Bear with us, if you find us stepping on toes of campus management, as we play this role of policy shaper,“ Dr Carolissen said, also adding that NSFAS’s mandate was to implement, not to make policy – a mandate of the DHET.
In the meantime, Dr Carolissen said that his organisation was working with the DHET on a statement to clarify the student allowances matter. He also said that the NSFAS operating model was being finalised and would be in place within weeks.
In response, the USAf Board welcomed this feedback, saying that these engagements must be a regular feature between the two entities to maintain mutual understanding. As the Board lauded the improvements noted in NSFAS’s administrative processes in the first quarter of 2019, vice-chancellors welcomed direct and bi-lateral engagements with the institutions lagging behind on data reports. The Board members, however, appealed for urgent clarity in the policy on students’ meal allowances – especially as they pertained to students living outside of university residences. Allowances were the main bone of contention in students’ protests in the first quarter of 2019.
Vice-Chancellors noted the rising incidence of gender-based violence in institutions. They said this issue warranted serious attention and that remedial mechanisms should seriously explore what was doable within the framework of South Africa’s constitutional democracy. It was also agreed that a database of sexual offenders be drawn up and shared across the system to ensure that transgressors dismissed at one institution did not land elsewhere within the sector.
Another issue of concern to the USAf Board was the Employment Equity Amendment Bill that was about to be published. There was a feeling that the higher education sector could be hard hit by the impending amendment on account of their tendency to employ foreign nationals, especially in areas not considered as scarce skills. A suggestion was made for more rigorous lobbying of the Department of Labour to instil in authorities, appreciation of the distinct nature of higher education. The general feeling was that universities, as part of a global knowledge enterprise, should be allowed room to attract and retain staff that would enable the sector, and South Africa, to compete at a global level.
The OA2020 Project
The Board of Directors decided to take a stand as South Africa’s university system, on Open Access 2020 (OA2020). OA2020 is a global initiative advocating for the abandonment of the current system of paying twice for scholarly journals, in favour of a model that advocates for once-off payment to publish and enjoy unrestricted access thereafter, across the globe.
Vice-chancellors noted that South Africa must throw its muscle behind this global campaign and capitalise on the support coming out of Germany, China and the University of California to break ties with publishing houses which continued to insist on scholars paying to have their work published and again to access those journals at a later stage. It was agreed, however, that a uniform understanding was necessary across the sector, of the cost-benefit of subscribing to OA2020 as an alternative to continuing on the current trajectory.
To that end, a briefing document detailing the facts around OA2020 would be circulated to all members of the Board for an informed decision in this regard. It was agreed that apart from the outcome of a detailed cost-benefit analysis, other deciding factors would be assurance of universal access and benefit to all of South Africa’s institutions regardless of size and financial muscle and the question of how South Africa stood to pay for access, as a nation. It was also important to bring all science councils on board as critical contributors to the knowledge economy.
New appointments to USAf structures
Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG)
The Board approved the appointment to the TLSG, of Prof Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Pretoria and Prof Francois Strydom, Director at the University of the Free State’s Centre for Teaching and Learning. Prof Nomthandazo Gwele, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic, at the Durban University of Technology was re-appointed for another year (2019).
The Board also endorsed the nomination of Prof Gordon Zide, Vice-chancellor and Principal of the Vaal University of Technology to the Chairpersonship of the Admissions Committee, following the resignation of Prof Henk de Jager from the position. Prof Kinta Burger was also approved as a new member of this committee, in place of
Legal Advisory Committee (LAC)
The Board also ratified the appointment of Dr Pinky Mrwetyana, Registrar at the Central University of Technology, to serve on the LAC. Dr Mrwetyana was taking over from Mr Michael Somniso, who had vacated his seat on account of his resignation from the University of Fort Hare. Also approved was the extension of the term of service on the LAC, of Ms Nita Lawton-Misra by another three years from 31 December 2019.