Varsity students and Nzimande clash over laptop tender

Student bodies and Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister Blade Nzimande are at loggerheads over the provision of laptops. The South African Students Congress (Sasco) has threatened to take Nzimande to court in a bid to force him to deliver the laptops.

Sasco spokesperson, Luvuyo Barnes said Nzimande and the national student financial aid scheme (NSFAS) chief executive, Andile Nongogo, made no “real” commitment, and have failed to take the country into their confidence regarding the dispute over the laptop tender because one company was seeking to have the tender overturned.

“Sasco reiterates its position that it would not tolerate lip service and would utilise all avenues inclusive of the courts to keep them accountable and ensure they deliver,” said Barnes.

This was after Nzimande yesterday briefed the nation on plans for reopening higher education institutions and science and innovation during the fight against Covid-19 pandemic. During his briefing, Nzimande said the tender for the provision of laptops was fairly awarded in November last year to five bidders.

However, he said the NSFAS was engaging with the service providers to develop the implementation process including specifications, ordering, order turnaround times, delivery, payment terms, warranty, support and maintenance.

“At the same time, NSFAS is finalising the implementation guidelines for universities and TVET colleges, which will be consulted with institutions before implementation,” said Nzimande.

He also said that  NSFAS was also engaging with individual institutions to assess laptop requirements for their NSFAS students, to ensure compatibility with the relevant qualifications. Nzimande said it was important to note that university students would use their learning materials allowance to buy the laptops, which they would own and which would be used for the duration of their studies.

“NSFAS aims to complete those processes over the next few weeks, and once that is done, we will communicate specific dates to the institutions. It is anticipated NSFAS will be able to start rolling out the first batch of devices for delivery when the 2021 academic programme resumes in March,” said the Minister.

A member of the SA Union of Students’  national executive committee, Lukhanyo Daweti, said the union was not “entirely” satisfied with Nzimande’s address. Despite this, Daweti said they welcomed the fact that at the beginning of this academic year, the laptops would be distributed to students and the universities in need would be the priority for the laptops.

He said what was concerning was that there was no clear plan on how students were going to integrate the new enrolment into the current way of teaching and learning.

“You must know there will be students from across the country … in poor and disadvantaged backgrounds, some have never touched laptops, some have never participated in online learning. I did not hear the minister tackling such matters. How is he going to make sure that these students are going to succeed?” asked Daweti.

Nzimande also urged students awaiting their matric results not to panic, because universities would only open after the release of the results, saying his department would work closely with institutions to prepare the system for the start of 2021 academic year. Education activist Hendrick Makaneta said Nzimande’s efforts in the fight against Covid-19 should be highly supported, and that the higher health officials should actually work around the clock to support students.

DA spokesperson on Higher Education, Science and Technology, Chantel King, said Nzimande did not say anything new in his address except for the R45.7 million earmarked for community education colleges for cleaning services.

King said the complete focus should have been on the digital economy of higher education institutions and a 1% earmarked expenditure on research and development to capitalise on the research gains displayed during this pandemic.

She said the minister once again pushed everything over to the institutions to deal with enrolment crises and infrastructure capacity.

“As he stated, there is a 25% increase in NSFAS applications. He highlighted that 61% of NSFAS beneficiaries were Sassa (South African Social Security Agency) beneficiaries. This means that these students had no access to online learning and exams because of the NSFAS laptop project, which is still at implementation stage,” she said.

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