A SASS peer learning group examines the effect of NSFAS funding on student experience of higher education

Published On: 1 December 2023|

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) has been in the headlines recently with its former CEO fired over “breach of trust”, on-going reports of students battling to get their monthly allowances and news that a new NSFAS funding model will be presented to Cabinet before the start of the new academic year.

So it was highly pertinent and topical that an investigation into how NSFAS funding affects students in the South African Higher Education (HE) context was one of the research presentations given at the recent SASS (Student Affairs Student Success) colloquium held in Johannesburg.

The SASS programme is a direct response to a national Training Needs Assessment (TNA) survey that the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme carried out among student affairs, student development and student support professionals at South Africa’s 26 public institutions in 2021. The study found that 86% of the surveyed sample (N=362) was keen to take part in a capacity building intervention to enhance their impact on student success. This finding, including the competencies and skills needs expressed by the target group, went on to inform the design of the training programe during 2022.

The inaugural training programme, launched in May 2023, attracted 51 participants from student support services in all their forms across South Africa’s public universities.

The 51 were split into 10 Peer Learning Groups (PLGs), each of whom chose a research problem to investigate – findings of which they shared with their counterparts at their wrap-up colloquium on 28 November.

From left, Ms Riana Muller, Senior Faculty Administrator, North-West University; Ms Noluthando Mayaphi, Teaching and Learning Consultant, University of Fort Hare; Ms Violet Kgatla, Student Support /Academic Excellence Coordinator, Tshwane University of Technology; Dr Maud Blose, Senior Lecturer, University of Johannesburg and Mr Lindokuhle Mkize, Student Academic Support Coordinator, University of Zululand.

The Iconic Innovators (above), aimed to investigate current NSFAS challenges, their impact on student beneficiaries, and provide recommendations for improving the NSFAS programme.

The five conducted online surveys with 364 students at their respective universities – 131 were in first year, 110 in year two, 66 in third year and 57 in their fourth year.

Says Muller, who was the group leader: “NSFAS was established to provide financial support to disadvantaged students in South Africa, ensuring they have access to higher education. However, there have been numerous concerns and challenges faced by students in accessing and utilising the NSFAS funding including delays in the disbursement of funds, inadequate and unclear communication, and bureaucratic hurdles that hinder the smooth process of receiving financial aid. These issues can have a significant impact on the success and well-being of the students, potentially hindering their performance and progression in their academic journey.”

Research questions included:

  • What is the relationship between the timeliness of NSFAS funding allocation and students’ academic performance?
  • What is the effect of NSFAS funding on academic performance of students?
  • What are the psychological and emotional effects of NSFAS funding on students?
  • How does the payment system affect students’ experiences with NSFAS funding?
  • What effect has NSFAS funding on acquiring and accessing resources for students?

Continues Muller “To understand the experiences and challenges faced by students who are recipients of NSFAS funding we needed to hear their voices and understand where they were coming from. When you read what the students wrote to us, it was sometimes heart-breaking.

“HE in South Africa is not only a provider of education but also an agent of social change and development so we wanted to analyse the sentiments and experiences of students across different year levels, to identify common themes and patterns in their feedback and to assess how these changes affected their success, financial stability and overall well-being,” she says.

“Our goal was to provide a comprehensive overview of the NSFAS funding programme’s effectiveness and to highlight areas that may require improvement to better support the needs of students in South Africa. We also wanted to provide recommendations for improving the NSFAS programme based on the findings to improve student success.”

NSFAS plays a crucial role in increasing access to HE for those who would otherwise not be able to afford it and further their education and there is a positive impact of NSFAS funding on students’ academic performance and overall well-being.

Study findings

However, there were key challenges uncovered by the group including:

  • The challenges experienced by delays in funding disbursement
  • A lack of communication from NSFAS towards students
  • A need for an increase in funding to cover living expenses
  • The psychological effect of NSFAS funding (or lack of it) on students (anxiety, stress, depression)

Year 1

First-year students often had difficulty in understanding the application process and this was hindered by a lack of communication from NSFAS. They were also concerned that they wouldn’t receive adequate financial support by way of living expenses. Recommendations to overcome these problems include timely communication, clearer guidelines on the application process and workshops to help first year students to understand the system, which they often find complicated and overwhelming.

Year 2

Those going into second year experienced delays in fund disbursement, challenges in updating personal details and issues with the laptop distribution. Streamlined processes for fund disbursement would help resolve this as well as a timely distribution of resources and a dedicated helpline for year two students who often find “themselves lost”. Says Muller: “We found instances where NSFAS allocated laptops to students but there was a delay in getting the equipment to them and the students were left without the necessary resources to study.”

Year 3

For third-year students there was often uncertainty about continued funding, for example if they had failed two modules the previous year, would they continue to be funded? They found it difficult to get their questions answered and fears addressed. There were also challenges in securing internships or practical experience due to financial constraints. These students needed assurance of continued funding if they qualify as well as  partnerships with companies for internships and much-needed guidance on post-graduation opportunities and career planning.

Year 4

Fourth-year students experienced anxiety about repaying loans (this is the cohort funded before 2017 when a Presidential order decreed NSFAS funding a full bursary) and being pressurised to repay them without knowing where the money would come from. They found there was a lack of clarity regarding the repayment process with students not knowing amounts owed or payment timelines. There were also concerns regarding job placements following graduation. What would be beneficial would be workshops on financial literacy and loan repayments which are basic things that they should know and collaborations and partnerships with industries for job placements and support for post graduate studies.

Students at all levels of study were grateful for the financial assistance they had received, which had enabled them access to HEIs and the opportunities this provides.

Adds Muller: “From the responses, it is evident that many students are facing challenges with the new payment system, which has resulted in late payments and other issues. This has caused stress, anxiety, and other negative impacts on the students’ academic performance and overall well-being. There are also concerns about the amount of funding provided, with some students calling for an increase in the allowance to cover their expenses. They often don’t have enough for living expenses such as food and don’t always have enough to survive.

“There needs to be better communication between NSFAS and students. Overall, there is a clear need for improvements in the NSFAS funding process to better support students in their academic journey and in order for them to achieve success. We are talking today on behalf of our students.”

Recommendations to NSFAS

  • Review the business model of the scheme
  • Improve communication
  • Address delays in funding disbursements
  • Review the allocated funding amounts
  • Enhance the application process
  • Conduct regular surveys to identify areas for improvement so NSFAS knows what is going wrong and what is happening on the ground

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.