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NSFAS students plot strike over dysfunctional IT system

Sibahle Malinga
By Sibahle Malinga, ITWeb senior news journalist.
Johannesburg, 17 Mar 2022

A group of tertiary students, named “Youthful Hope”, is threatening a nationwide academic shutdown, as a result of frustrations with the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) IT system and mismanagement within the scheme.

The Youthful Hope movement has set up a petition on, which has been signed by almost 25 000 students. The students claim they have been excluded from NSFAS funding due to the online system miscalculating the number of years they have been funded by the financial aid scheme.

According to the petition, when students who started four-year degrees in 2018 register on the system, they receive a message that states it is an “unsuccessful funding application due to exceeding the N+2 period of study rule”, even though they have not exceeded it.

According to NSFAS, the N+2 rule means students only have N+2 years to finish a degree. “N” refers to the minimum number of years allocated to complete a qualification in record time, and the “+2” refers to the extra two years a student may need to complete the qualification (making the maximum time period).

The petition explains: “Recently, a large number of students have reported they’ve been excluded from NSFAS funding due to exceeding the N+ rule, even though they haven't exceeded it. It appears the majority of these students that started four-year degrees in 2018 can't register on the system altogether due to this apparent error.

“Furthermore, they don't know how to proceed as the appeal reasons which NSFAS lists on their portal don't account for being told that you've exceeded N+ when you haven't. Students are struggling to get responses from NSFAS as they are borderline unreachable recently.”

As a result of this system error, students who are theoretically within the N+2 limit have been excluded from registering for the student loan, resulting in many being forced to sleep on the streets because NSFAS has not paid for their accommodation, adds the petition.

In 2020, higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande appointed a ministerial committee of inquiry to investigate NSFAS business processes, including its “inadequate” R100 million IT system.

The system was introduced to change the funding process for students in need of financial aid, and the new model would see NSFAS directly funding students for their studies instead of the funds being managed by individual institutions.

However, the minister told the committee the IT platform and systems built to manage the processes were not able to function effectively.

Once again last year, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts raised concerns in Parliament on the NSFAS systems, noting there are deeper issues that primarily stem from the lack of adequate IT systems and controls.

Failing to make the grade

Commenting on the petition, Karabo Masilo, a student from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), wrote: “I have been successfully studying at UJ for two years and suddenly the system tells me that my application has not been successful due to exceeding the N+2 rule. I don’t understand what is going on?”

Zinhle Mbongo from Durban wrote: “I am wrongfully affected and it's really affecting my mental health as well.”

Mamagase Tshegofatso from Pretoria added: “I am signing the petition because it hurts me as a student of TUT seeing other students not getting a place to stay because they are wrongly affected by the N+ rule not mentioning them not getting an allowance.”

Responding to ITWeb’s questions on the matter, NSFAS spokesperson Kagisho Mamabolo says, while it is true that NSFAS needs a new IT system, the error message “unsuccessful funding application”, due to exceeding the N+2 period of study, is not a reflection of a faulty IT system.

Rather, it means the student has been studying longer than the minimum allocated time for their qualification, as well as the extra two years they have been given to complete their qualification, he adds.

“As indicated in Parliament over the years, NSFAS needs a new IT system to respond to its new business model of providing bursaries, as opposed to loans. Minister Blade Nzimande and the NSFAS board have always informed Parliament that the time to change the NSFAS system is now, in order to ensure the new funding operations,” states Mamabolo.

“However, we can also mention that an ‘unsuccessful’ student may include many of the students who do not qualify because they continue to fail and no longer meet the criteria. Some keep on changing their qualifications, thus exhausting the NSFAS funding threshold.”

According to Mamabolo, individual students are assessed based on the NSFAS funding criteria – some students have been enrolled in colleges or universities for over five years, and still have not obtained any qualification.

“There is no way NSFAS will fund such a student whose academic success is not guaranteed. NSFAS funds individual students based on their circumstances − there is no country-wide funding, like a one-size-fits-all.”

Over one million NSFAS students have been provisionally funded for the 2022 academic year and only 286 000 students were not successful in their application for funding, he points out.