24/04/2018 16:53 BST | Updated 24/04/2018 16:53 BST

Billions More For Free Higher Education

But students have to fulfil strict criteria to get the money.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters

The government has made billions available for tertiary education, but students have to fulfil strict criteria to get the money.

Satisfactory academic performance will be among the expectations university students will have to meet in order to qualify for government's funding scheme, said higher education and training minister Naledi Pandor, who was updating the media on Tuesday about the funding scheme.

In December 2017, at the start of the ANC's elective conference, then-president Jacob Zuma announced government would implement fee-free higher education for students from poor and working-class families. At that stage, there was no plan to fund it.

Government set aside additional funding of R7.166-billion in 2018 — R4.581-billion for qualifying university students and R2.585-billion for technical vocational education and training (TVET) college students.

"As a result, the baseline allocation to NSFAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme) to support poor and working-class university and TVET students will increase from the R9.849-billion in 2017/18 to R35.321-billion in 2020/21," said Pandor.

"This implies a need for improved efficiency and systems development at NSFAS. We have therefore allocated an additional R105-million over the medium-term expenditure framework to assist NSFAS to increase and strengthen its administrative capacity.

"What has changed is that government will support poor and working-class students through an expanded bursary scheme, which replaces the previous loan and partial bursary scheme," said Pandor.

Details being finalised

Students entering universities or TVET colleges for the first time will not be expected to pay back their bursaries, but "they will be expected to meet certain conditions and expectations, including those relating to satisfactory academic performance and service conditions".

She said the exact details of this were still being finalised.

Altogether 485,875 TVET students will be supported by the increase. Based on historical data and the enrolment targets for 2018/19, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of TVET college students will benefit.

Approximately 50,480 TVET college students will qualify for accommodation and food, and a further 82,600 will qualify for transport allowances.

The full cost of study of the bursary scheme for poor and working-class South Africans is being phased in from 2018, starting with first-time entry students from families with a gross combined annual income of up to R350,000.

"All continuing existing NSFAS-funded university students will receive their funding in 2018 and for the completion of their studies as grants rather than as loans."

System integration challenges

It is expected that the funding allocation will provide for approximately 83,200 (40 percent) of the 208,000 university spaces for new entrants in 2018. The final number of students funded will only be known later in the year.

"We have instructed all universities to keep within their enrolment targets, which determines how many students, and in which fields of study, can be admitted to each university."

More than 400,000 students applied for NSFAS this year.

NSFAS is still in the process of integrating the registration data from institutions with its own funding eligibility data, and will be able to confirm final numbers once all registered students who match the financial eligibility criteria submit the requisite information.

Pandor said there were "significant challenges with regards to system integration between NSFAS and institutions", which has affected the submission of registration data to NSFAS.

Pandor has decided that her department will assess all NSFAS processes and systems this year to solve problems that have been brought to the department's attention.

"Every single delay has a real effect on students, on their ability to access accommodation and food, books and, ultimately, on their ability to succeed. We simply cannot fail to distribute funding to students when it is available," she said.

"Students, we are attending to these problems — and I urge you to sign your bursary agreements as soon as they are available. Any senior students who have not signed their 2017 loan agreement forms or schedule of particulars must do so immediately. You have a responsibility to ensure that the institution that supported you is paid."