Just how sustainable are the year-on-year above-inflation student fee increments at the country’s universities?
This is the question management executives at the 25 public universities – including the two new institutions in Mpumalanga and Northern Cape – should start agonising over.
A number of them have just seen student unrest over fees.
It’s been a revolt of the poor who rely on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).
The scheme is battling to meet demand, leaving thousands outside gates of higher education.
Unable to afford the exorbitant university fees, the youth – the majority of them black and poor – become statistics of those not in education and unemployed.
Universities’ annual increases – which have been above inflation in many institutions year-on-year – have directly contributed to NSFAS’s sudden inability to fund almost all poor, academically deserving students.
But fee increases are also hitting hard the pockets of parents paying for their children.
Universities generally blame what they claim is declining government funding in per capita terms over years for their increases.
“Over the years, government funding has been decreasing in real terms.
“Student fees have been increasing in line with inflation,” said Tawana Kupe, deputy vice-chancellor for finance at Wits University.
“However, it is unsustainable to raise student fees exorbitantly, as parents are already under pressure from various quarters due to increasing costs overall – they simply cannot afford to pay exorbitant university fees.
“Universities are thus pressed to raise more funds via third stream income through contract research, donations and other funding sources in order to balance the budget, putting universities under further financial strain.”
The University of Pretoria (UP) also said disproportionate government funding had been a significant driving factor for its fee increments.
“The increase in the subsidy received from the government over the past three years (2014 included) was substantially lower than the rate of inflation for that period,” said spokesman Sanku Tsunke.
It was “generally accepted” that the rate of inflation for higher education institutions was higher than the published general rate of inflation, said Tsunke.
UP tried to limit increases, “since providing access to higher education is a priority for the university”, said Tsunke.
The government’s budget for the university sector will jump to more than R30 billion in the 2015/16 financial year.
A recently released document of the Department of Higher Education and Training shows that this allocation currently stands at just over R28bn.
As impressive as the billions of rand the government has budgeted for universities might seem, they lose some financial value once in the coffers of institutions, experts have argued.
“The subsidy in real terms, if you take inflation, has decreased quite substantially over the past 10 to 15 years,” said Pierre de Villiers, associate professor at Stellenbosch University’s department of economics.
Calling for the government to up its funding, Kupe said the higher education sector in South Africa was “severely underfunded overall”.
“There is a dire need for the government to invest more in this sector.”
But the government has reiterated many times it can only fund universities to its limits, taking into consideration that South Africa was a developmental state.
“The current economic and financial environment places enormous responsibilities on all spheres of government to do more with less,” said the higher education department in its document detailing the university budget.
“The transfers (subsidies) to universities are the government’s contribution towards meeting the needs of a developmental state while trying to remain globally competitive.”
De Villiers said: “There are people in South Africa who think that free higher education education is a reality. We just can’t afford it… the NSFAS can’t satisfy the demand of all students.” (Sunday Independent)