The Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande, says he is concerned with the developments that have taken place over the past few days at higher education institutions.
Briefing media in Pretoria on Thursday, the minister said they had been made aware of protests at the University of Johannesburg, Tshwane University of Technology, Mangosuthu University of Technology and Durban University of Technology in relation to issues of registration and provision of loans and bursaries to students.
He said while the department upheld the right of non-violent protest by students, he was concerned at the disruption of academic progress and agony that is suffered by new students at universities and the parents of these students.
Nzimande further condemned the destruction of property, saying the police should deal with students who break the law.
"We urge all institutions' management to engage with students and all other stakeholders ... We also urge students to use strikes as the last resort and seek to engage management first," said Nzimande, who was yesterday locked in meetings with the National Students Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) and leaders of student bodies to find a solution to the protests.
This comes after the Tshwane University of Technology and the Durban University of Technology suspended lectures on Wednesday and Tuesday, respectively, due to disruptions caused by protesting students.
According to university policy, students cannot register in the new year until their debt has been settled. As a result, many students with outstanding accounts have been barred from registering in 2014.
Nzimande said the NSFAS scheme, which was established to provide bursaries and loans to poor but academically deserving students at public universities and further education and training colleges, was one of government's major success stories to date.
The scheme's budget has increased substantially and almost tripled from R31bn in 2009 to just over R9bn in 2014 in order to keep pace with the increasing number of students who need assistance.
The 2014 budget is projected to cover than 430 000 students. Of these, about 205 000 students would be funded at the country's 25 public universities, while 215 000 would be students at FET colleges.
"For the first time [this year], the NSFAS FET component exceeds the university component, as government is deliberately expanding the FET funding system faster than that for university students," Nzimande said.Funding deserving students
However, despite the increases, there is still not enough money for the scheme, as there has been a shortfall of R2.6bn due to the rise in tuition and other fees.
Tshwane University of Technology, just one of the tertiary institutions at which protests have occurred. (Image: Source; Daniel Andrew Chileshe DanielAndrewC, via Wikimedia Commons)
This led to the department sourcing an additional R1bn from the National Skills Fund for all the universities to cover the 2013 and 2014 shortfall for continuing students.
"There is not enough money to fund all the needy students, and this is not a new problem," said the minister.
He said in the context of limited funds, students who have performed poorly in 2013, will likely not be funded in 2014. "We need to fund deserving students and not professional students," Nzimande said.
NSFAS provides funding only to those students who have a course pass rate of at least 50%.
The minister said students who received funding in 2013 and have performed well should not be prevented from registering for 2014 because of outstanding fees.
He said the scheme had already made an advance payment for 2014 to all FET colleges to the value of 10% of their annual allocation and was waiting for requests from universities for a similar advance payment, which they make every year.
NSFAS receives its budget in April each year and pays out funds to universities and colleges up until the end of the financial year on 31 March.
NSFAS CEO Msulwa Daca said he hoped the scheme would finalise all payments well ahead of the March deadline.
Nzimande attributed some of the delay in payments to the new loan management system, which is still being piloted at some of the institutions. The new system forms part of the turnaround strategy of the system aimed at providing more efficient and effective financial aid to students.
The system, which was implemented in October last year, aims to centralise the application of loans and NSFAS will administer the money itself, while the universities will still do the admission of students.
Nzimande said that the central application system , which he admitted had teething problems as it was being piloted, had been identified as an important aspect in resolving the problem of students applying late for loans and bursaries and therefore denied admission at universities.
"The department and NSFAS are continuously engaging with all stakeholders in this pilot phase to ensure that the lessons learned and challenges raised are acted upon," Nzimande added.