SOUTH AFRICA: Funding boost to slow fee hikes

The South African government has committed R3.6 billion (US$500 million) to universities to reverse a funding decline, reward institutions that produce more graduates, improve infrastructure and relieve financial pressure to raise fees – an issue that propels students to protest and has disrupted campuses recently. But Minister of Education Naledi Pandor warned students that demands for free tertiary study would never be met.

Pandor said at a media briefing in Parliament on 12 February that free higher education was unrealistic in a developing economy. She condemned students for violent behaviour and vandalism during protests over tuition fee issues that have hit four universities this year.

Improved resources should place universities in a situation where any fee increase should be at a reasonable level, Pandor said.

The financial outlook for South African universities has begun to improve after decades of real-term declines in state subsidies. The government has acknowledged that under-funding, along with rapidly growing student numbers, have placed severe strains on higher education quality and infrastructure, and that universities have a crucial role in filling skills gaps that are stunting economic growth.

The Minister said that during the planning process for the three years to 2010, R3.6 billion would be allocated to a number of universities that had indicated the potential to increase their enrolments and graduates – and especially black graduages – in areas of skills shortages.

A significant amount of this had been allocated to institutions to increase enrolment and graduate outputs in engineering; universities currently produce around 1,500 engineering graduates annually from four-year bachelor and bachelor of science degrees – but many more are needed in this critically skills-short field.

The government has already allocated R48 million in total to four leading universities – Cape Town, Wits, KwaZulu-Natal and Pretoria – based on their graduation success rates, especially of black students. “The funds have been used by these institutions to enhance student support and teaching facilities,” she added.

Pandor expressed concern at the low salaries of academics, an issue that was currently being studied. "It is clear we need criteria that are rational and make sense that inform salary levels, such as the size of the institution."

Higher Education South Africa, the vice-chancellors’ association, told University World News it was still studying the funding announcement. But it welcomed the government’s acknowledgement of the real decline in university funding and the Minister’s position on student fees, a spokesman said.

During the parliamentary briefing, Pandor stressed that tuition fees would continue to be charged – and that nowhere in the world were universities able to meet their costs from state subsidies alone.

"Countries of our level of economic development really would never be able to afford free higher education," she told reporters.

This will not be welcomed by students who have been pressing for free public education – and at least for a capping of tuition fees. These have been rising at above-inflation rates for years because of declining subsidies to universities.

Fee levels are a huge problem for the sector’s majority poor student population, with thousands of students dropping out every year either because they have been excluded by universities for not paying outstanding fees or because of financial difficulties incurred by the costs of higher education costs. The National Student Financial Aid Scheme cannot afford to fund all poor students, or even the full costs of those it can fund.

Last week, about 200 students marched through the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College campus in Durban, reportedly threatening staff and disrupting classes, in a protest against exclusions of students for financial or academic reasons, and accommodation issues.

Earlier this month, violent protests closed the nearby Durban University of Technology for a week, but the university now appears to have reached agreement with students on how to deal with fee increases, exclusions and other issues. There have also been demonstrations this year at the University of Limpopo and Tshwane University of Technology, and late last year at the universities of the Witwatersrand and Johannesburg.