Students want financial aid scheme rule to change

Some students are funded for two extra years when they do not complete studies within specified periods. Many say this is a blanket treatment of their struggles and must be reviewed.

Thousands of students from impoverished and working class homes receive financial aid from the  National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) each year. Students are funded for the number of years they are enrolled at a higher learning institution for a specific programme. If students do not finish their studies in the programme-specific time, NSFAS further undertakes to fund them for two more years, after which financial aid is stopped, whether or not students complete the qualification. This, in a nutshell, is the N+2 rule.

“It is like seeing the finish line, and then someone takes away all your hopes, dreams and chances to break the financial burden in your family,” said Palesa Tsimatsima, 26, a University of Johannesburg (UJ) student.

“It’s heartbreaking to know that the only chance you have to make sure you finish school is broken. Because you have been in the system for a certain amount of years, the same system doesn’t care to find out why,”  she said, expressing her frustration with N+2.     

This rule is applicable only to students who started receiving financial aid from the fund before 2018. “The N+2 applies to students who are funded before the 2018 pronouncement of free education. These are students who were funded in 2017 going back. N+1 rule applies to students who are funded post the 2018 pronouncement of free education. These are students funded from 2018 going forward,” says Randall Carolissen, a NSFAS Administrator. Both the N+1 and N+2 rules are applicable.

During a media briefing on 9 June 2020, higher education minister Blade Nzimande said his department had received requests from students wanting the N+2 rule scrapped. “We are not going to change the stipulated number of years within which NSFAS beneficiaries are expected to finish their studies, both in terms of the pre- and post-2018 NSFAS requirements,” he said.

Bitterness over the rule

Many students who receive NSFAS funding are not happy with the rule. They say it disadvantages them, as it looks at the number of years a student has been at tertiary institution and not necessarily the number of years that they have been receiving funding from NSFAS.

Tsimatsima, for example, has been studying towards an education degree, majoring in hospitality studies and economics. She is in her fourth year of study. While in her third year, hospitality was phased out and she had to replace the module with one called gastronomy.

“Little did I know the pressure this replacement module would place on me,” she said. “It took up most of my time and energy. It was a practical subject that required me to be on a different campus most of the time, and that led me to put in less time in the other major. I failed my second major due to this and had to add another year.”

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Tsimatsima is currently not funded for the 2020 academic year, and she learned only after registration that NSFAS had stopped funding her studies. “The decision by NSFAS came as a shock to me as I had received an SMS at the beginning of the year to come register. I assumed I would be funded like in the previous years,” she said.

Nthabiseng Mnguni, a fourth-year Bachelor of Education student at UJ, is also disgruntled. “The N+2 rule is very unfair because it does not consider the number of years [a student is] funded. It only considers the number of years you’ve been at varsity,” said Mnguni. In 2013, Mnguni, 26, enrolled at Tshwane University of Technology and secured NSFAS funding.

In 2014 and 2015, after her brother got a job, he paid for Mnguni’s studies. Then, in 2017, Mnguni moved to UJ and got NSFAS again. “In March this year I was told I had exceeded the number of years to be funded,” she said.

Because of the NSFAS N+2 rule Mnguni says she is unlikely to graduate or access her academic record. “That saddens me because at the beginning of the year I received an SMS stating that I was unblocked to register and that I’m funded by NSFAS, only for that statement to be retracted. I feel hopeless,” she said.

N+2 appeals system

Nzimande has said: “While the N+2 rule for NSFAS students registered before 2018 has always been in place, its application has been erratic, due to data gaps, inadequacies and constraints between NSFAS and institutions.”

To get rid of the current confusion, the fund’s Randall Carolissen says appeals made by students will be considered under the following terms: 

“Where students cancel their enrollment in the first semester, the particular year will not add to the ‘N+ calculation’. Where students provide medical or psycho-social evidence, that appeal will be considered. Appeals from students in their final year and have exceeded the N+2 provisions will be considered.”

Carolissen says that the N+2 rule policy is in place to ensure that students strive to complete their studies in record time so other impoverished and deserving students can be funded. He said more than 19 778 students have exceeded the N+2 rule for the 2020 academic year. “We have so far received 6994 appeals during the N+2 review period, it must be noted that not all these will be N+2 appeals as institutions were also allowed to review appeals they previously rejected,” said Carolissen.

 Appeals processes fail students

Students wanting to appeal against the NSFAS decision must do so at their institution of study. The institution then sends an appeal form to NSFAS stating reasons why the student in question exceeded the number of study years.

“I was unable to appeal because UJ did not allow students to appeal the N+2 rule. We were told it’s policy, and we can’t appeal it,” said Mnguni.

Further, Mnguni said students’ learning abilities and background should be taken into consideration when enforcing the N+2 rule. Also, she adds, in pursuing their dreams of obtaining a degree, students face difficulties like the death of a family member, depression, illness and academic stress and anxiety.

Tsimatsima said the process of appealing requires one to fill in a form and submit supporting documents. “There is a box outside the office, which seems neglected that you go drop off the form. After that, you just have to hope and pray that the office receives it because you get no notification or anything to show that your appeal was received.”

Daphney Nemakhavani, a senior manager of the UJ NSFAS office, said: “Students were allowed to appeal. However, not all students who exceeded [the] N+2 rule appealed before the closing date. Please note that the appeal is initiated by a student. The NSFAS appeal form itself does not cater for the N+2 as a rule that a student can appeal against. Nevertheless, some students appealed their exclusion due to [the] N+2 rule and were recommended by UJ to NSFAS. All the students were rejected by NSFAS due to [the] N+2 rule. The rejection decision was before the announcement by the Minister of Higher Education and Training. Please note that the NSFAS appeal is designed by NSFAS as the funder.”

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Nemakhavani said UJ accepts all appeals regardless of the reason provided by students. According to her, the N+2 rule is that of NSFAS, not the university. The role of UJ is to administer the funds on behalf of NSFAS and, as such, it is guided by NSFAS rules: “UJ can only recommend but the decision on approval lies with NSFAS.”

She rejects claims that the UJ NSFAS office prevents students from appealing the N+2 rule. “Students who have exceeded the N+2 rule are allowed to appeal. Those appeals are submitted to the NSFAS head office. We have a number of students who were rejected because they have exceeded the N+2 rule.”

When asked to comment on the fund’s appeals process, Carolissen said: “The appeals are considered by the institution’s appeals committee or designated committee for recommendation to NSFAS. This is due to the complexity of these appeals. Reasons vary from academic progression to rejections based on whether a student has exceeded the applicable ‘N+ rule’.

“On receipt of the appeals recommendations from institutions, NSFAS verifies all data received to ensure compliance with all funding rules before a final determination is made. NSFAS has the final say on all appeals for NSFAS funding.”

Positive news

However, the two students who were interviewed for this article will now be funded for the 2020 academic year. It is unclear if this is the result of their appeals or a question of miscommunication.

Tsimatsima commented on her “reviewed” status and said: “Before Monday [6 July 2020] my status was deemed ‘unsuccessful’ due to the N+2 rule. But now, it says, ‘funding eligible pending valid registration’. I still haven’t had any communication from finance offices on campus nor has NSFAS sent me any information about the changes and what they mean.

“This, however, gives me hope and has honestly made the year feel a lot less frustrating. Knowing that there is a possibility of fees getting paid off in my final year also puts my grandmother at ease.” 

Following an update to her NSFAS status, Mnguni said: “My NSFAS status has changed from ‘unsuccessful’ to ‘funding eligible’.” 

She insists, however, that the N+2 rule must be cancelled. “Although the new developments have benefited me, I still repeat that the rule should account for the years funded not years at varsity. I say they must scrap the rule once and for all.”

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