OPINION

Budget 2016 doesn't solve university funding crisis - Belinda Bozzoli

DA MP says R16.3bn in emergency funding welcome, but it doesn't fully fill the gap

Budget 2016 does not solve university funding crisis 

28 February 2016

We welcome the R16.3bn emergency funding provided for Higher Education in the 2016 Budget. However so deep is the funding shortfall in this sector that even this significant amount fails to address key chronic problems in the university system, as it brought nothing new to the table for long term needs. 

The DA condems unlawful and distructive protest. Sadly, we are obliged to point out that until the deeper systemic issues are comprehensively dealt with, violent protest will continue to disrupt Universities throughout South Africa, and possibly even escalate. 

The DA was hopeful that the Minister of Finance would announce bold new solutions to the funding crisis in the Higher Education sector. But the budget provides no long term solutions to the vexed question  of the ‘missing middle’; to the intractable matter of future fee increases; or to the chronic shortages of accommodation on campuses everywhere.

The generous top-ups to NSFAS, while hugely important to the lives of thousands of poor students, will not expand the scheme’s reach into the ‘missing middle’. These are students from lower-income families that earn above the R122 000 per annum threshold used in the NSFAS means test who still cannot afford to finance their university studies themselves and are not seriously considered by banks for commercial loans. 

In fact core funding to NSFAS will remain more or less stagnant in real terms, increasing from approximately R9.5 billion to R10 billion – an increase lower than the rate of inflation. The R4.5 billion emergency funding, though much needed, will only assist over-indebted and under-funded students already in the system. No plans have been detailed in the MTEF to expand NSFAS into the ‘missing middle’ within the next three years. 

Government’s plan with respect to fee increases at universities is a defensive rather than proactive one. The Budget Review states that the R5.7 billion to be put into university subsidies will go towards “keeping fees for the 2016 academic year at 2015 levels, and the carry-through costs over the MTEF”. The Budget is silent on fee increases for 2017, 2018 or beyond. 

Many students are no doubt expecting that there will again be no fee increase for the 2017 academic year. Yet, as the budget does not explicitly provide for this, it seems likely that they will be disappointed. Indeed, it seems that fee increases can still be expected in 2017, 2018 and beyond. It also remains to be seen if the plan will be sufficient to keep any such fee increases at or below inflation.

Therefore, although government may have found the money for the fee freeze of 2015, thereby temporarily pacifying the #FeesMustFall movement of 2015, it seems unlikely that this funding will be sufficient to prevent #FeesMustFall 2016, 2017 and beyond. 

Investment in new infrastructure is increasingly being squeezed out. Only R3.4 billion is earmarked for this, a mere 2.9% increase on last year’s allocation and significantly lower than the current inflation rate of 6.2%. Universities will therefore be hard pressed to construct new accommodation for the growing student population; let alone new lecture halls, libraries and laboratories. 

The ANC government can no longer afford to shy away from bold leadership while our Universities burn. The DA will do everything in its power to give effect to the budget process to try and unlock and reprioritise the budget so that we may be one step closer to ensuring access to higher education and a better life. 

Statement issued by Prof Belinda Bozzoli MP, DA Shadow Minister of Higher Education and Training, 28 February 2016