Portfolio committee pins hope on new Nsfas boss and board to turn scheme around

The parliamentary portfolio committee on higher education believes new leaders at the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (Nsfas) will bring stability after the “worst” two years the scheme has seen while under administration. 

The board’s new chairperson, Ernest Khosa, and chief executive officer, Andile Nongogo, appeared before the committee for the first time on Wednesday. 

Nongongo was there to present the scheme’s annual report after Nsfas received a qualified audit in the previous financial year. 

The scheme could not provide proof of money it owed universities or that these institutions owed it, and Nsfas’s financial records did not reconcile with those of the universities. Auditors also found that while Nsfas had recorded that it had achieved 76% of its targets, the actual number was only 36%. 

Nongogo told committee members that Nsfas did not have a system to track money. 

“Many of the issues that the AG [auditor general] has raised are indeed issues that we are grappling with as an organisation. We have already started actioning some of the things raised by the AG,” he said. 

Nongogo said the scheme has started asking universities’ auditors to confirm the funds received, the balance and whether the money is used for its intended purpose.
The scheme has also initiated a tender process to get a service provider to assist it in reconciling the backlog of the numbers Nongogo attributes to Nsfas’s ageing systems “that are not fit for purpose”. 

In an interview with the Mail & Guardian in 2019, the former administrator, Randall Carolissen, spoke about how he had arrived at Nsfas and found “systems that didn’t work and “crashed every night”.

Carolissen said the “data integrity was all messed up” and that nobody knew how much funding students needed. In his first week on the job, he brought in a data expert who fixed the data’s quality. 

But the chairperson of the portfolio committee,  Philemon Mapulane, said that based on the auditor general’s report it appeared that the Nsfas administration did little to fix its problems. “The things that were meant to be achieved through the administration were not achieved. In fact, things got even worse.

“When you look at what triggered Nsfas to be put under administration, those issues are still there, all of them. So when you look at the period under administration, Nsfas has actually got into the worst position. The AG report points to this fact … even though there is an attempt to try and paint a rosy picture.” 

The scheme has, since 2017, had problems with management and leadership. The former chief executive, Msulwa Daca, who had been at the helm for four years, exited the scheme quietly in January 2017. He did so about two years after former FirstRand chief executive Sizwe Nxasana had been appointed the chairperson of the board. The higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, appointed Nxasana in 2015, but a year before his four-year term was to end, Nxasana resigned in 2018.
After that former higher education minister Naledi Pandor dissolved the board and appointed Carolissen. Just months after Caroliseen was appointed, the then chief executive, Steven Zwane, resigned nearly a year into the job. His resignation came after he had been suspended for allegations of maladministration and was in a disciplinary process. 

In 2019, Carolissen told the M&G, that when he arrived at the scheme, he told Zwane that they needed to part ways.  “I didn’t want somebody obstructing me from doing what I needed to do.” 

On Wednesday Mapulane told Khosa that the new board had a duty to stabilise Nsfas  “after such a terrible period of two and a half years of the administration”. 

He and other committee members said the committee would support the board and Nongogo in changing things at Nsfas. 

Committee member Nompendulo Mkhatshwa said a lot rested on the new board and chief executive. “What we are hoping for this time around … [is that] we will not be fooled again to believe that people have the intent of making sure that this institution becomes what it is meant to be when in the meanwhile they are honestly just playing with taxpayers money.”

Khosa said the board had taken a resolution to assess and quantify the problems to come up with corrective mechanisms. “What this may mean is that the board may come back to this committee and report on steps that need to be taken.”

In his last year at Nsfas, Carolissen’s administration came under fire and a number of allegations were levelled against him such as nepotism and maladministration which were first raised by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union. 

Last year, Carolissen appeared numerous times before the portfolio committee to answer the allegations he vehemently denied. He was supported by Nzimande, who praised the work that Carolissen had done at the scheme. He accused those raising the allegations of being disgruntled employees who were against change, and that some were facing disciplinary action as a result of the rot he said Carolissen had uncovered at Nsfas. 

The committee has set aside three days in March for an inquiry into the allegations at Nsfas.

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