Education gets ‘some relief’

South Africa’s 23 public universities can expect an 11,9% subsidy increase annually over the next three years, according to Finance Minister Trevor Manuel’s estimates.

And if inflation falls within the target band of between 3% and 6% in the third quarter of next year, this increase could be more tangible in real terms for universities, which have suffered a decline in subsidies in the past eight years.

Manuel indicated this week that universities are receiving R13,9-billion in subsidies for 2008/09 and that this is expected to go up to R15,6-billion in 2009/10, R17,9-billion in 2010/11 and R19,5-billion in 2011/12.

Overall, the total education budget allocation for 2008/09 was revised upwards from R121-billion to R123,4-billion and is expected to grow by an annual average of 10,4% in the next three years. This indicates the Cabinet’s commitment to ”improving the quality of education and skills development to broaden opportunities for our people and to raise our level of productivity”, Manuel said.

Meanwhile, higher education enrolments grew from 578 000 in 2000 to 741 000 in 2006 and an increasing proportion of funding has been channelled to science, engineering and technology. Graduates in these subjects increased from fewer than 24 000 in 1999 to 35 000 in 2006.

Theuns Eloff, chairperson of the university vice-chancellors’ association, Higher Education South Africa, welcomed the fact that subsidy increases now match inflation. However, ”in terms of enrolment planning targets by the Education Department and universities,” he said, ”we are taking in more students but cannot appoint more staff”.

Eloff said that, on the other hand, the government’s separate allocation of R3,2-billion for 2010/11 to 2011/12 to universities for infrastructure and efficiency improvements will ”fill some gaps and bring relief”.

Meanwhile, R1,9-billion in conditional grants to provinces has been allocated for the school nutrition programme, which is a major chunk of the education budget. This will go up to R2,4-billion in 2009/10; R3,7-billion in 2010/2011; and R4,6-billion in 2011/2012. But there is an additional R265-million allocation to ensure that the targeted seven million learners will be fed on all school days during this financial year. An additional R79-million has been ­allocated to cover costs related to food price increases.

For John Pampallis, director of the Centre for Education Policy Development, this separate allocation shows concern that the poor should not be short-changed by inflation. ”Overall, the nutrition programme is receiving a substantial increase. We need careful monitoring of how the money is spent and parents and schools need to be given a voice. They need to know exactly what support a child can expect to get and there should be a hotline to raise complaints. We keep hearing of reports of corruption and inefficiency around the nutrition programme.”

Pampallis is also complimentary about another R107-million being allocated to the R6,1-billion Kha Ri Gude mass literacy campaign. The funds will accommodate 60 000 extra learners while a planned 300 000 were enrolled this year. ”Kha Ri Gude ought to help with schooling. If grandparents and parents are able to read they will help children read,” he said.

For the 2008 school year, provinces will spend just less than R3,5-billion to ensure that about five million learners in 14 264 schools benefit from the no-fee school programme. The majority of these learners are in the Eastern Cape (1,2-million learners), KwaZulu-Natal (1,1-million) and Limpopo (one million). In the next three years government intends to extend no-fee status to 60% of schools.

While the increased allocations have been welcomed, ”the system needs to become more efficient so that we can see the benefits”, said Thomas Blaser, education analyst at the South African Institute of Race Relations. Administration of the no-fee school system needs to improve so that schools do not experience cash flow problems, he said.

Furthermore, while the National Student Financial Aid Scheme needs to allocate more funds to students already receiving grants, the grants must be extended to more students to allow them access to higher education, he said.

According to the budget vote, the scheme, which is receiving R1,6-billion for 2008/09, will benefit from an extra R39-million to factor in inflation.

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