/ 20 October 2008

R3,2bn boost for varsities

Education Minister Naledi Pandor has allocated R3,2-billion to universities for the 2010/11 and 2011/12 financial years for projects that will help universities achieve national social and economic development goals.

Deputy Director General of Higher Education Dr Molapo Qhobela told Higher Learning that Pandor will approve projects at universities and universities of technology targeted at engineering; architecture and the built environment; health, life and physical sciences; and student accommodation. Decisions on allocations will be made early next year.

Last year the department allocated R3,9-billion to universities for the 2007/08 and 2009/10 period for refurbishing existing buildings and acquiring new buildings and improving teaching and learning equipment and library facilities. The funds are being spent on targeted initiatives to improve graduate outputs and produce more science, engineering and technology graduates. The initiative began a major infrastructure investment drive, the first in 30 years.

Qhobela said the new funding is in line with the need “to ensure academic efficiency and that students pass and pass well. We want to improve the quality of the students and their experience. We want to modernise teaching facilities at universities of technology, for example, and are targeting health sciences so that universities can take on more students or use the capacity they have [more efficiently].”

Some universities will receive more than others: those with strong balance sheets will have to pull more from their own funds to meet the total costs of their projects.

“It is anticipated that higher education institutions will add private funds of at least R1,1-billion to the projects. The total investment in these two years will therefore be R4,3-billion,” said Qhobela.

The R3,2-billion will be allocated as follows:

  • Architecture and the built environment (3%). Funds will be spent on programmes that focus on architecture-related fields, including the application of the principles of planning to the development and improvement of urban areas; the design of different types of spaces for leisure and living; and the aesthetic and socio-economic aspects of the built environment.
  • Engineering in universities (10%). Funds will be allocated to undergraduate programmes to increase capacity and improve success and throughput rates.
  • Engineering in universities of technology and comprehensive universities (17%). No funds were previously allocated to engineering programmes at these institutions. Money will be allocated to national diploma and BTech engineering programmes and may be used, for example, on the purchase of high-tech equipment for teaching purposes.
  • Health sciences (15%). Qhobela said studies undertaken by the departments of education and health show increases in health sciences enrolments and graduates are necessary.
  • Life and physical sciences (20%). Funds will be allocated to undergraduate and postgraduate programmes to improve research infrastructure of science departments and faculties. Fifteen percent will be allocated to undergraduate programmes, while 5% will be allocated to postgraduate programmes, including laboratory and research infrastructure.
  • Student housing (20%). Inadequate student housing remains an obstacle to equity of access in higher education. Funding will support the creation of quality student housing, particularly at historically disadvantaged institutions and institutions in rural areas. Qhobela said improved quality of student accommodation can help to improve student success rates and eventual graduation rates.
  • Teacher training (15%). Funds will be used to increase enrolments and graduation rates, as well as to improve the quality of initial teacher preparation programmes.

Meanwhile, Professor Roy du Pré, the vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology (DUT), said he will request funding for engineering, health sciences and student accommodation projects.

“Universities of technology are expected to perform at a high level, but the infrastructure and equipment are outdated — To compete with the rest of the world and to conduct high-level research with sister universities overseas, DUT will have to upgrade its equipment,” said Du Pré.

Infrastructure and staff development needs must also be addressed.

Du Pré said: “DUT has tremendous demands for the programmes it offers in health sciences and to keep up with this demand it needs to ensure its infrastructure and equipment are of the highest level.”

Many students need accommodation. Du Pré said: “DUT can take more students, but as a large number of our students are from a historically disadvantaged background more residences are needed to accommodate them.”

Professor Adam Habib, the deputy vice-chancellor: research at the University of Johannesburg, welcomed the new funding and said ring-­fencing of funds “makes sense”.

He said the Doornfontein campus needs significant upgrades and the university needs funds to enhance student access to engineering, engineering technology and health sciences.

But, referring to a decline in government subsidisation of universities in real terms, Habib said the education department must realise that giving money for infrastructure development does not relieve the burden of operational costs.

One university, which requested anonymity, is sore about the basis of the allocations, saying that those with strong balance sheets are being punished, while poor performance is rewarded.

Qhobela argued that some universities “got to where they are through serious investment by the state [in the past], not alumni or their own resources. We are making the allocations on the basis of needs and if it is equity driven, so be it — I go to residences where the IT network is connected in every room. Students can access library facilities from their dorm. Then I go to another university where there are three or four to a room with barely anything. Then we expect equality in terms of [student] outcomes.

“Whether you graduate from the University of Zululand or the University of Cape Town, you should have access to the same basic inputs for teaching and learning.”

What universities are doing
Universities have been receiving infrastructure and efficiency funds in tranches since 2007. Of the total R4,8-billion (government and private funds), historically black institutions, including merged institutions, are receiving more than R1,7-billion. New universities formed from mergers of historically black and white institutions have been allocated over R1-billion. Historically white institutions including merged institutions are receiving R1,7-billion.

Projects receiving funding include:

  • University of Fort Hare: R150-million to acquire property and revamp buildings on the East London campus;
  • Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University: R300-million for upgrades to the Missionvale campus (formerly Vista);
  • Tshwane University of Technology: R344-million for security and infrastructure upgrades at Soshanguve and Ga-Rankuwa;
  • University of Venda: R249-million for student accommodation, laboratory upgrades and to cater for 10 500 students;
  • University of the Western Cape: R200-million towards a R440-million science building;
  • University of Johannesburg: R340-million for upgrades to the Soweto campus;
  • Walter Sisulu University: R454-million for an engineering technopark, new lecture halls, computer laboratories and staff restructuring;
  • North West University: R24-million towards the Centre for Animal Health;
  • University of Zululand: R130-million towards the Richards Bay campus; and
  • Universities of Pretoria, the Witwatersrand, Stellenbosch and KwaZulu-Natal: R439-million to increase graduates in engineering degrees.

Education Minister Naledi Pandor said that for the 2007/08 to 2011/12 period, R9,1-billion will be invested in the public higher education system to improve basic infrastructure and the efficiency of service delivery. Most of this will come from direct government investments.

The balance will come from the private resources of higher education institutions. “The joint approach of government and higher education institutions will ensure that our students and academics will benefit.”

Thomas Blaser, education analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations, said the funding will create “pockets of excellence”, but more needs to be done to address the high student drop-out and failure rates.

“We need to go back to fundamentals. Are students being taught the foundations of academic learning in their first year?” he asked.

Blaser said that at the end of a three-year BA degree a student should be able to read and write a one-page essay without making mistakes and have analytical skills. But the provision of these skills is lacking. “If you want people to succeed you need to make the overall system better. You have to create a system that develops students to be the best they can be. They have to be equipped to succeed. There should be more support for foundation programmes.”