Pravin Gordhan sticks to his guns and gives education the biggest portion of the national budget.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan stuck firmly on Wednesday to the blazing guns he fired last year in the cause of skills development. But because he spent a mere paragraph traversing education compared with three whole pages last year, one had to look at the budget's voluminous supporting documents to be reassured that he had even remembered the sector.
He had. At R223-billion in the next financial year, rising to R236-billion in 2014-2015, education remains the largest single expenditure item in the budget.
It is possible Gordhan felt one paragraph on the sector was sufficient after his pyrotechnics last year on skills, because he had so little new to say. But one year on both his silence and some worrying data in the budget's supporting documents spoke more eloquently about the sector than he did.
The further education and training (FET) colleges provide one prime example. They receive R4.9-billion, up a little from the powerful injection of R4.5-billion they enjoyed in the 2011 budget.
Lurking in the budget documents, however, was a startling reminder of how weak the recipients of all this cash are: the colleges had a 24% "certification rate" (essentially, graduation rate) in 2010 and the very modest aim is to increase that by a mere 5% annually to 2014.
That is an example of the disturbing data the impressive piles of money tend to obscure. But there is a silence here, too, namely the quantitative audit of the colleges that the government commissioned from the Human Sciences Research Council several years ago, which is still to see the light of day.
This means data such as student enrolment at colleges are "probably a bit of a thumbsuck", said Joy Papier, the director of the FET Institute at the University of the Western Cape.
"It is great the budget continues to increase, but what is it based on?" she said. "Colleges in the Western Cape have made huge efforts, such as increased marketing, to attract more students, though that's not so across the country. But it is a most unsatisfactory state of affairs: What are all the predictions, of increased student numbers and so on, based on?"
Ian Scott of the University of Cape Town was concerned about the government's obsession with "access" in the absence of an equivalent commitment of resources to "success", in particular student graduation rates in both colleges and universities.
In terms of access, the budget material was eloquent. Allocating R26-billlion to universities, up from R23-billion last year, the budget review said student enrolment was expected to increase to nearly 960 000 by 2014/2015, compared with just less than 910 000 this year.
Further increases to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme, from R6-billion last year to R7.3-billion in 2012/2013, will assist both college and university students, boosting access for the poor and swelling the number of graduates in scarce skills, Budget Review said.
"But the emphasis on access is expedient if we are not also working on the success of students," said Scott, the director of the university's academic development programme.
The state funds such programmes on the assumption that only 15% of students need them, he said.
"That is grossly below what's needed. In fact, 50% to 60% of a university's intake needs some such support. The policy pretends that what is actually a majority problem is only a minority one," he said.