SOUTH AFRICA: Change in the air for universities

State funding for universities in South Africa is expected to rise over three years from R15.3 billion in the 2008-09 financial year to R21.3 billion (US$2.9 billion) in 2011-12, Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande said last week. He outlined a cluster of impending changes, including reviews of the funding framework and of student housing.

In a ministerial statement published on Wednesday, Nzimande said government was committed to advancing transformation in higher education and believed a new funding framework was "necessary to ensure higher access and success rates particularly for black African and disadvantaged students, and improved quality of teaching and research."

The week before, at the annual congress of the South African Students Congress, Nzimande ripped into some universities for poor financial management, and said a review of the flawed National Student Financial Aid Scheme would be completed by the end of this year.

He warned universities that they needed to deal urgently with issues of racism, and said a higher education summit would be held early in 2010 "to tackle the issue of transformation head-on".

In Wednesday's ministerial statement, Nzimande said a new draft higher education policy, adapted from several recommendations made by a task team, would be implemented in 2011-12 following advice from the statutory advisory body the Council on Higher Education.

A departmental technical working group will review the funding framework next year, and a second working group will - in response to pressures on student accommodation - probe the state of student housing, the need for more accommodation and how it could be financed.

Nzimande said government was also "committed to reducing the percentage of students who are not subsidised as a consequence of over-enrolment by universities". The goal was to reduce the number of unsubsidised students from 12% in 2007-08 to 1% in 2012-13.

A ministerial task team, he continued, had recommended that the current policy on teaching development grants be scrapped.

All institutions, and not just under-performing ones, should be eligible for teaching development grants - which provide crucial academic support to students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds. The first of a cycle of teaching development grants will be paid to institutions after plans have been submitted to and approved by the department.

Features of the proposed new teaching development policy, Nzimande said, were that 80% of the teaching budget would be distributed on the basis of actual teaching outputs (graduates) produced by universities, with the rest used as earmarked funding for teaching development. Distribution of funds would "be based on the share each institution has of the degree credit total of the higher education system".

Funds used for teaching development grants, the Minister said, would have "to be used in targeted ways to improve the success and graduation rates of disadvantaged students".

Universities would have to identify programmes in which the graduation rates of disadvantaged students were significantly lower than those of advantaged students, and "killer" courses failed by large proportions of disadvantaged students. They would have to submit plans indicating what interventions could be made to improve success rates in these courses, expenditure budgets and annual progress reports.

Change is also on the way for research development grants. A ministerial task team, Nzimande said, had recommended that a new policy to be implemented after 2011-12 under which 80% of the research budget would be distributed on the basis of actual research outputs produced by universities, and the rest would be disbursed as research development grants.