Education

Blade's budget blues: Universities to bear the brunt

David Macfarlane

Parliament's discussion about the financing of SA's universities and skills development sector begs the question: What is at stake? The answer: A lot.

On the eve of Parliament’s crucial discussion on Tuesday about the financing of South Africa’s universities and the country’s entire skills development sector, we need to pause to ask: What is at stake?

A lot—starting with the health of all 23 public universities. Because it is on Tuesday April 24, that Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande will present his budget vote to Parliament.

No surprises to come, we might assume? In a narrow sense, this is true: his department told us last week what the minister would favour.

We already know how much money Nzimande will have to play with on Tuesday. His Cabinet colleague, Finance Minister Pravin Gordon, announced this in February when he took centre stage in Parliament and delivered his national budget speech.

In brief, universities have R26-billion in 2012/3 (up from R23-billion the previous financial year). Their student enrolment must increase to nearly 960000 by 2014/5, compared with just under 910000 this year.

But both this year and last year Gordhan awarded pole position not to universities but to mid-level skills and workplace training.

In the finance minister’s 2011 national budget, it was the further education and training (FET) colleges “that found themselves in the unusual position of basking in the minister’s limelight”, the M&G reported at the time.

With all that unprecedented cash, colleges must increase their student enrolments both into the stratosphere and very fast, Gordhan said last year and again this year. They must take in way above their current 300000 and, in only a few years, have many more students than universities do.

As the FET colleges’ conjugal partners-to-be in the country’s huge skills-development drive, Setas and the National Skills Fund also duly received massive injections of financial multivitamins and hormones.

Where does all this leave universities? In a word: unhappy.

It is universities, after all, who have to deal with one facet of South Africa’s schooling crisis: its low quality means tertiary institutions must try to cope with the extremely poor academic preparedness of many students they admit.

Academic-development programmes are any university’s chief tool for supporting these students. But you had to look long and hard through Gordhan’s supplementary budget documents to find out what universities get from government to finance and run these.

“The state funds such programmes on the assumption that only 15% of students need them,” one well-placed academic expert told the M&G in the week of Gordhan’s national budget this year.

“That is grossly below what’s needed,” he said. “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.”

No schooling problem is, strictly speaking, Nzimande’s problem—that is Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga’s turf.

But few if any academics or university managers will say publicly how unhappy they are with Motshekga’s delight, for two years in a row, at the seriously implausible upward hikes in the national matric pass rate.

The unhappiness at universities on that score in turn became Nzimande’s concern when he joined the Cabinet in 2009. He has indeed said a few trenchant words on the matter since then—but will he address it on Tuesday in Parliament?

That is only one subject universities will listen closely to hear about, among the voluminous wish lists written on every ivory tower in the country.

But they are likely, yet again, to have to listen as closely to Nzimande’s silences as to his invariably well chosen and charismatically delivered words.

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