A collective sigh of relief must have rippled through university corridors on Wednesday as Finance Minister Trevor Manuel allocated an extra R700-million in his budget to institutions of higher learning.
This is to cater for the anticipated student growth from 783 900 last year to 836 800 in 2011. This year alone has seen a dramatically higher intake of first-year students as a result of there being 22 000 more than in 2008 who qualified for admission to universities.
South Africa’s 23 public universities will receive R15,3-billion in subsidies and earmarked funding up from last year’s R13,8-billion. Manuel said the extra R700-million is “specifically directed at infrastructure projects and earmarked allocations to improve graduate outputs” and for additions to the general block grants to institutions.
Adam Habib, head of research at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), said the additional subsidies for universities would “go a long way in relieving financial pressure on universities”. UJ, which is also experiencing a high student intake, has to look at the possibility of employing additional staff to keep the student-staff ratio down and will look at renovating buildings to accommodate more students.
For Theuns Eloff, chairperson of the vice-chancellors’ association Higher Education South Africa, the increase in subsidies is at an “inflationary rate” and allows room for growth in student numbers.
A glaring omission in Manuel’s budget speech was any mention of money for raising academic salaries, something that Education Minister Naledi Pandor has been lobbying for.
John Pampallis, head of the Centre for Education Policy Development, said this was disappointing.
“There is a brain drain in the sector — people are not only being lost to industry but they are going overseas. Academics should be provided with an incentive to stay.” But overall Pampallis gave Manuel’s budget a thumbs-up, saying it was without any surprises and linked to resolutions of the ANC’s 2007 Polokwane conference. Calls at Polokwane for the provision of free education up to undergraduate level have been registered by Manuel, who provided for the extension of no-fee schools from the current 40% to 60%. He also gave more money (R2,1-billion against last year’s R1,7-billion) to the government loan scheme for poor students, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
University of the Witwatersand registrar Derek Swemmer said the increase to the NSFAS was “very desirable” as it plays a vital role in uplifting previously disadvantaged students.
These allocations have contributed to the total education budget increasing from the adjusted R127-billion in the 2008/9 financial year to R140-billion in 2009/10, and despite ongoing concerns over the poor return on the investment in education, it remains the government’s single largest investment.
Priority areas outlined in the education budget remain tightly aligned with the government’s broader poverty reduction agenda as well as Pandor’s consistent focus on improving the quality of education. They include increasing meals to more learners, reducing average class sizes in schools serving poor communities, increased spending on school buildings, improving training programmes for teachers and recapitalising technical high schools.
A key intervention expected to improve the quality of education includes a R6-million allocation in 2009/10 for the establishment of the National Education Evaluation and Development Unit (Needu).
A ministerial committee led by educationist Jonathan Jansen recommended to Pandor that Needu be set up as an independent statutory body to provide authoritative evaluations of schools and teachers.
The performance of learners will determine how well teachers and schools are rated. Needu is seen as a revival of the defunct inspectorate system.
In support of the department’s pro-poor focus the nutrition programme for schools will now also include secondary schools in quintiles one to three, starting with the poorest quintile one schools this year. Schools are divided into five quintiles and the government funding they receive is based on the socio-economic conditions of the communities they are based.
The school nutrition programme conditional grant will increase from R577,3-million in 2009/10 to R1,3-billion and R2,1-billion by 2010/11.
This contributes to an annual increase of 28,3% in the department’s social and school enrichment programme, which deals with the social, health and safety matters in education.