With some universities across the country currently besieged by student protests over exorbitant fees and a shortage of bursary funds, national treasury announced on Wednesday that it will increase funds to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Government expects this to assist more than 500 000 students per year.
The South African Students Congress (Sasco) called for mass protests this year over a shortage of NSFAS funds, which it said has excluded millions of poor students from the higher education system.
At least 27 students were arrested during protests at the University of Johannesburg this month, while campuses in Durban and Tshwane were temporarily shut down as protests escalated.
Delivering his 2014 Budget speech in Cape Town on Wednesday, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan announced increases in education spending.
In 2014, government will allocate R253.8-billion to education, while the sector received R240-billion from the national fiscus in 2013. The allocation to the NSFAS will increase from R5.1-billion last year to R6.6-billion in 2016/17.
"This will increase the number of FET college bursaries to 292 000 and will assist more than 236 000 students to attend university by 2016/17," Gordhan said.
He said government had received many requests for more money to be directed towards higher education, and this would be reflected in the 2014 Budget.
Gordhan said over the past five years, government has spent R115-billion on higher education, including R18.6-billion on the NSFAS.
"Allocations to the NSFAS amount to R19.4-billion over the next three years, and will assist more than 500 000 students a year."
Spending on social infrastructure generally – which includes health, education and community facilities – will increase from R30-billion in 2012/13 to R43-billion in 2016/17. Gordhan also promised to prioritise school infrastructure backlogs.
He emphasised the "great strides" made by government in improving access to education: in 2007, 5-million learners had free education, and the number is now 8.8-million.
Enrolment in grade R has increased from 544 000 learners in 2009 to 779 000 in 2014, and the national school nutrition programme now feeds 8.7-million children.
Gordhan said the Funza Lushaka bursary scheme supported 3 950 graduates qualifying for placement as teachers in 2013.
Steps have also been taken to involve more sectors of society in improving education and infrastructure at schools.
"The National Education Collaboration Trust, government, business, labour and civil society will pool resources and work together to restore schools and improve education outcomes in the period ahead," Gordhan said.