Stacks of laptops
  • Students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) need laptops to ensure they are not left behind while the coronavirus pandemic shifts tertiary education online, the government said in April. 
  • It then failed to find a supplier for the up to 730,000 laptops it wants to buy.
  • A new tender process has just started, which, if it does not fail again, will hopefully see final delivery by the end of January 2021 – nine months after that first announcement.
  • This time around the minimum specifications for the laptops are less fancy, and less theft-proof.
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The last of hundreds of thousands of students on the state's financial assistance scheme for tertiary education will receive laptops to help them study online – hopefully by the end of January 2021.

But those machines may be considerably less fancy than the laptops that had been envisaged in June, and which had been due to be in the hands of students by the end of this month.

On Friday the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) issued a new tender for the supply of what could be up to 730,000 laptops to poorer students in South Africa.

That represents an entirely fresh attempt at delivering on a scheme first floated in April, when higher education minister Blade Nzimande promised that no student will be left behind during the coronavirus pandemic, as in-person education shifted to distance education.

His department had "already started exploring" how to get laptops into student hands, Nzimande said at the time.

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It took a months to officially decide that NSFAS would handle the procurement of the devices, and another month for NSFAS to issue a tender in search of suppliers. It received 150 such tenders, but said none were good enough as all had "failed to achieve all mandatory requirements as per tender bid description".

That tender, which had called for final delivery by the end of September, was then cancelled.

The newly issued tender now calls for final delivery to students by 31 January 2021.

The revised tender gives some hints on the kind of paperwork trouble bidders may have run into, with more detail on how they must prove that the bags that must go with the laptops are entirely made in South Africa.

Potential suppliers no longer have to prove that they have delivered laptops "of similar value and quantities" – so on the order of three quarters of a million units – in the last five years. Instead, the new bid says, they need only show they have sold 5,000 laptops at a time.

See also | Up to 3.2 million SA households could be in line for free (or at least subsidised) TVs

The new effort also calls for considerably less fancy laptops.

In the previous incarnation of the bid, mandatory device specifications called for HD screens of at least 14.1 inches – larger than the maximum available on some popular lines of laptops – and built-in 4G capability.

Laptops were also supposed to have a HDMI port, which would allow them to be plugged into TVs or projectors, and had to have a battery life of at least five hours, spill-proof keyboards, and the capability to be upgraded to at least 8GB of RAM.

Those requirements are all gone. Instead, the minimum specifications have been pared down to:

  • A dual core CPU
  • 4GB or RAM
  • A 500GB hard drive
  • 512MB of video RAM
  • At least two USB ports

Machines must also still come pre-installed with the Academic version of Windows 10 Professional.

Those machines will not necessarily snitch on their users anymore, and may be less easily secured against theft. Dropped from the new requirements are provisions that the laptops must be able to report on "usage" and "software that is not approved by the Department" of higher education. Also deleted is a requirement that laptops must be capable of being frozen when stolen.

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