Concerned role players in the academic publishing and bookselling sector said they noted higher education, science and technology minister Blade Nzimande’s visit to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) offices in Cape Town on Tuesday.
The Alliance for Academic Success, a group formed by stakeholders in the academic book supply industry, said the visit would provide a critical opportunity for the minister to account for his department’s recent decision to pay the NSFAS textbook and learning material allowance as an uncontrolled cashable allowance for the 2020 academic year.
“This grave decision was taken despite the widespread negative repercussions the cash payment has already had on students and on the fiscus,” the group said in a statement.
In January 2019, NSFAS instituted a unilateral policy change, without input from critical education sector stakeholders, according to the alliance.
It said the “rash decision” saw allowances for textbooks and other learning material, previously paid to NSFAS students via dedicated and ring-fenced systems, suddenly being paid out in cash directly to students’ bank accounts.
“Since this policy change, it became clear that students stopped buying textbooks, new or second-hand. As a result, academic book sales dropped by over R500 million in 2019. Most alarmingly, the drop in sales was most dramatic at universities with a high proportion of NSFAS-funded students, which are rural, historically disadvantaged institutions.
“It is critical that NSFAS funding is disbursed effectively and in a way that ensures students are supported to achieve the financial freedom they seek. An entire generation of NSFAS students face certain struggles in already difficult circumstances, without responsible guidance to apply the financial aid that is drawn from public funds to buy textbooks that support their academic success,” the statement said.
It further said that the decision also had a devastating effect on hundreds of small, independent booksellers and entrepreneurs, who comprised the majority of tertiary learning material vendors, and who weren’t consulted or warned about the policy change. The businesses were now closing and some retrenching staff.
“All of these businesses are being lost at a time when our government should be doing all it can to support job-creating SMMEs.
“Minister Nzimande has echoed our concerns in the past about making policy choices that support students to make responsible decisions for their academic success. We therefore trust that he uses today’s (Tuesday) visit to the NSFAS Cape Town offices to address his department’s decision to continue with cash disbursements.”
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Source: African News Agency (ANA)