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Minister blames global chip shortage for student laptop delays

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Only 7 300 of a total 730 000 laptops intended for National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) students have been received, with delivery expected to commence this week.

This is almost a year after government promised to procure the laptops for all NSFAS qualifying students in universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges as part of the COVID-19 pandemic relief efforts.

In a written reply to a Parliamentary question about the provisions made to accommodate distance learning as a result of the pandemic, higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande provided an update on the status of the much-needed laptops for students.

Nzimande said timelines for the delivery of laptops have been hampered by the worldwide shortage of components to build laptops.

In his reply, the higher education minister pointed out the NSFAS had orderedthe first batch of 170 000 laptops for NSFAS-funded university and TVET college students, of which 7 300 laptops have already been received, despite the electronic component shortages.

Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.
Higher education, science and innovation minister Dr Blade Nzimande.

He also signalled that a consignment of 63 000 laptops are expected throughout June.

“A number of institutions have put in place mechanisms to provide electronic devices to students. The extent to which students who needed laptops were supported to obtain these varied widely across universities, from 0% or close thereto for three institutions, to over 70% for 18 institutions.

“The average across the system in February 2021 was that 74% of students who required laptops were supported to obtain one, including 66% of NSFAS students. This was reported by institutions in the bi-monthly monitoring reports submitted to the department.”

Hiccups along the way

It’s no secret that SA, like many other countries across the globe, has been hit by the worst electronic components shortage in decades.

However, government’s process to supply students with electronic devices to aid their studies has been marred by controversies since it was announced last June.

Allegations of impropriety emerged in Parliament in August 2020, and were blamed for the prolonged delay in the procurement of laptops for deserving NSFAS students.

At the time, Philly Mapulane, chairperson of the portfolio committee on higher education, science and technology, bemoaned the hold-up, saying parliamentarians have been alerted to attempts to influence the supply chain process.

This then resulted in the cancellation of the initial bid.

A new tender was re-issued, causing further delays in supplying the laptops, which, once delivered, will benefit 430 000 students registered at 26 universities and 300 000 students at 50 TVET colleges across the country. A total of 730 000 laptops will be procured.

The tender was finally awarded to five firms last November, from a pool of 140 bids. The five – Pinnacle, CEOS Technologies, MLO Distinctive Solutions, ANG Group and East Side Group – accepted the award and NSFAS is in the process of completing the contractual arrangements with the service providers.

Besides Parliament raising a red flag regarding the procurement process, the awarding of the tender also irked some in the electronics manufacturing sector.

The National Association of Manufacturers in Electronic Components (Namec) objected to the awarding of the laptops tender, saying the process was flawed and lacked transparency.

Namec held the view that the award is a slap in the face for emerging black-owned companies, saying the process denied them an opportunity to participate in a project that would have “altered their economic realities” in the electronics industry.

In April, NSFAS began the process for NSFAS students to register to receive their much-awaited laptops, calling on beneficiary students to use its online portal to order their devices.

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