Court Ruling Finds NSFAS Defunding Of LLB Degrees Was Lawful

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Budget cuts have forced NSFAS to make difficult decisions regarding funding allocation. The financial aid scheme's defunding of postgraduate qualifications has landed them in court.
 


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South African students rely on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) to achieve their dreams of higher education. NSFAS bursaries cover tuition and fees, and provide allowances for living expenses.

However, in 2021, some students faced funding cuts due to a challenging financial situation.

The Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) recently ruled in favor of NSFAS regarding eligibility criteria for bursaries. This comes after a court challenge regarding the exclusion of postgraduate LLB degrees from NSFAS funding for the 2021 academic year.

The COVID-19 pandemic significantly impacted NSFAS funding. Extended semesters, ongoing student support during lockdowns, and a rise in funding applications due to job losses put a strain on the budget. At the same time, the National Treasury implemented budget cuts.

To address the funding shortage, NSFAS, in consultation with Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, revised the bursary eligibility criteria. This revision resulted in the defunding of some students, including those enrolled in postgraduate LLB programmes at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2021.

Court Upholds NSFAS Decision on LLB Defunding

The SCA judgement validated NSFAS's actions. The court found that:

  • NSFAS and Minister Nzimande acted within their legal authority under the NSFAS Act.
  • The revised criteria were a reasonable response to the economic constraints caused by the pandemic.
  • Consultations with relevant stakeholders, including Universities South Africa and the South African Union of Students, met procedural fairness requirements. While individual student consultations were not possible due to time constraints, consultations with representative bodies ensured fairness.

The court also ruled that none of the three students who challenged the revised criteria were eligible for NSFAS funding in the first place. Reasons included not applying, not meeting financial requirements, or having an incomplete application.

With this ruling, the SCA overturned the previous High Court decision and dismissed the students' challenge. This means the revised NSFAS eligibility criteria, including the exclusion of postgraduate LLB funding for the 2021 academic year, remains in effect.

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