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Minister Nzimande in data talks with telcos as academic year looms

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Minister of higher education, science and innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.
Minister of higher education, science and innovation, Dr Blade Nzimande.

Dr Blade Nzimande, minister of higher education, science and innovation, says his department will soon resume negotiations with mobile network operators (MNOs) for a long-term solution on the provision of data for students.

Addressing the media yesterday, Nzimande said together with the Department of Communications and Digital Technologies, they intend to make sure no student gets left behind during the turbulent times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The minister added they are seeking a sustainable long-term strategy that ensures the Post School Education and Training sector does not revert back to pre-COVID status in relation to access to online resources by students and lecturers.

“The Department of Higher Education and Training will be engaging with the MNOs, inter alia, MTN, Telkom and Vodacom, Cell C, etc, with the intention that data becomes accessible to students.

“Furthermore, we will ensure the zero-rating of educational Web sites remains a critical point.”

The minister said unlike in 2020, when the department was dealing with one academic year, at this point in time it is dealing with the completion of the 2020 academic year, and the opening of the 2021 academic year, and this has incentivised the data negotiations with the telcos.

Meanwhile, Nzimande said the delivery of laptops to students under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) COVID-19 relief scheme, which has hit a snag for almost 10 months, will now be actioned in March.

The NSFAS tender to supply laptops to students has been under scrutiny for some months after allegations of impropriety emerged in Parliament, which led to the cancellation of the initial bid.

A new tender was reissued, causing further delays in supplying the laptops, which 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 in November to five firms from a pool of 140 bids.

The five – Pinnacle, CEOS Technologies, MLO Distinctive Solutions, ANG Group and East Side Group – accepted the award.

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 objected to the awarding of the laptops tender, saying the process was flawed and lacked transparency.

Yesterday, Nzimande said: “Currently, NSFAS is engaging with the service providers to develop the implementation process, including specifications, ordering, order turnaround times, delivery, payment terms, warranty, support and maintenance.

“At the same time, NSFAS is finalising the implementation guidelines for universities and TVET colleges, which will be consulted with institutions before implementation.”

According to the minister, NSFAS aims to complete these processes over the next few weeks, and once that is done, it will communicate specific dates to the institutions.

“It is anticipated that NSFAS will be able to start rolling out the first batch of devices for delivery when the 2021 academic programme resumes in March. NSFAS is also engaging with individual institutions to assess laptop requirements for their NSFAS students, to ensure compatibility with the relevant qualifications.”

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