In his February budget speech, finance minister Tito Mboweni said education would get R386.4-billion of the R1.83-trillion that government is spending this financial year. That’s more than 20% of the national budget.
South Africa cannot be accused of underspending on its future leaders.
That money is, however, not translating into results. Education is one of the single biggest failings of the national government and of most provinces.
The national matric pass rate went from 60.6% in 2009 to 78.2% last year. But much of this has comedown to changing what counts as a pass by lowering requirements.
In some instances the pass ratehas also been increased through the efforts of provincial education departments, such as matric camps during school holidays to help students prepare for their final exams, for example. In 2017, the Gauteng education department spent R180‑million on such initiatives.
Frustrated students have pushed government to do better. In 2015 and 2016, the #FeesMustFall movement forced the state to make higher education fee-free for large parts of the student population.
Every year students have been demanding better accommodation and other basic services, saying that having to live in shacks and being vulnerable to having their equipment stolen was unacceptable.
Sensing this weakness in the ANC government, opposition parties have focused on education in their election campaigns. The Economic Freedom Fighters promises to focus on infrastructure, from electrifying schools to building a swimming pool at each school and installing high-speed fibre lines for internet connectivity.
In its “comprehensive plan to fix the higher education system”, the Democratic Alliance is similarly focused on tangible results and funding students who cannot afford transport to school.
Government’s failure to translate a generous budget into decent educational service sis particularly hard to accept when it causes tragedy. The deaths of five-year-olds Michael Komape and Lumka Mketwa, who died four years apart after falling into pit latrines at their respective schools, still haunt the department of basic education.
So do the recent deaths of six children who were swept away by floods in the Eastern Cape because of a lack of scholar transport. Government has consistently said it would provide proper sanitation to pupils, and the courts have ordered schools to make sure pupils have transport to get to their schools, especially in rural areas.
Every year, more and more students enter the higher education system. Enrolment at universities increased from 969000 in 2009 to 1.04-million in 2017.
The announcement made by former president Jacob Zuma in 2017 to provide free education to poor and working-class students, following the #FeesMustFall protests, means students will enter the higher education and training sector at an even higher rate than before.
But these students are coming into a sector that has long been unstable because of its failure to deal with these persistent challenges.The shortage of student accommodation and historical debt, for example, are two factors that stop students from continuing with their studies.Despite the billions being spent on higher education, universities are underfunded and vice-chancellors have been vocal in saying that they cannot afford facilities such as new residences.
But there are some positives. For at least the past five years, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme has been struggling to fund the students that rely on it.
Students regularly went months without receiving their funding for tuition, accommodation and book allowances, among other things. Late last year, a new administrator — Dr Randall Carolissen — was appointed. At this point the IT system was crashing every night and staff were approving payments to students from home.
Under Carolissen’s watch, huge improvements have been made to the system.
Problems such as these have come to characterise the basic and higher education system sectors in the past five years.
When citizens go to vote on May 8, they will have to think carefully about which political party will be best able to fix the many problems in the education sector.