Education gets the bigger budget bite - with a reprimand

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Gallo)

Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. (Gallo)

"Together with the broader education infrastructure grant, R23.9-billion is available to provincial education departments for infrastructure over the next three years," Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan told Parliament on Wednesday.

He also appeared to allude to 2012's other major education scandal – the Limpopo textbook debacle – when he cited "the education accountability chain, with lines of responsibility from state to classroom", adding that there were "weaknesses" to be "tackled aggresssively".

Increased infrastructure formed part of larger education spending as a whole for 2013/14 – R232,5-billion, up 5% from last year's R221-billion – and kept education as the biggest spend item in the budget. 

But Gordhan also highlighted other needs in basic education, such as the improvement of numeracy and literacy and the expansion of enrolment in grade R. This was a noticeable rhetorical shift from the strong emphasis on vocational skills that characterised his speeches in 2011 and 2012.

But the numbers revealed that this year's spend on vocational and continuing education training would remain steady at just more than R20-billion – an increase of half a percent from last year. 

By contrast, basic education will receive R164-billion; an increase of almost 6%. Universities will have almost R29-billion at their disposal, up 7% from last year. 

Some of tertiary education's deepened coffers are directly thanks to the basic education department's failure to deliver. Nearly R1.7-billion originally earmarked for infrastructure backlogs was removed from Motshekga's department altogether and goven to Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande for his two new universities in Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape.

Unsuitable buildings
The fine print of Gordhan's budget documentation showed quite how poorly the basic education had approached infrastructure. In the last financial year, the department received R2.3-billion to replace 496 schools with unsuitable buildings and to provide 1 257 schools with water, 878 schools with electricity and 868 schools with sanitation. 

The department earmarked 49 mud schools in the Eastern Cape, which it undertook to eradicate and replace by the end of 2012/13. But the end of the year, only 12 of these schools had been replaced, and 106 schools had been provided with water, 144 with sanitation and 118 with electricity.

According to non-govermental organisation Equal Education – which launched last year's legal action over school infrastructure against Motshekga – Basic Education Deputy Minister Enver Surty admitted to portfolio committee members that the department underspent its budget by R1.8-billion by the end of the third quarter. 

Gordhan clearly had enough of those departments that "struggle to spend their full infrastructure budgets". He said: "money has been taken away from programmes that are not performing … and given to programmes that are delivering as planned".

Reduced spending
As a result, the basic education department's allocation of R5.4-billion for infrastructure last year was increased only to R7.9-billion this year, reducing the originally projected spending by R1.65-billion. School infrastructure backlogs will  have to be addressed in a five-year period, not three years as was planned, said Gordhan.

Another rebuke to the department came in the re-channelling of another R1.1-billion, also originally earmarked for infrastructure, to the building of community libraries. 

But Gordhan had only good news for Nzimande, and universities in particular – they will be the "spend focus" of the department for 2013/14. "This is intended to increase the number of university graduates, particularly in scarce skills areas, and provide access to universities and colleges for poor students by providing loans and bursaries," the budget's supporting documents read.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme increased in 2013/4 to R6-billion, up from R5.4-billion last year. This will take the numbers of students receiving state financial assistance to nearly 420 000 – well above last year's 290 000.

Thalia Holmes

Thalia Holmes

Thalia is a freelance business reporter for the Mail & Guardian. She grew up in Swaziland and lived in the US before returning to South Africa.She got a cum laude degree in marketing and followed it with another in English literature and psychology before further confusing things by becoming a black economic empowerment (B-BBEE) consultant.After spending five years hearing the surprised exclamation, "But you're white!", she decided to pursue her latent passion for journalism, and joined the M&G in 2012. The next year, she won the Brandhouse Journalist of the Year Award, the Brandhouse Best Online Award and was chosen as one of five finalists from Africa for the German Media Development Award. In 2014, she and a colleague won the Standard Bank Sivukile Multimedia Award. She now writes and edits for various publications, but her heart still belongs to the M&G.      Read more from Thalia Holmes

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