Unisa students marching in central Durban. Picture: THULI DLAMINI
Unisa students marching in central Durban. Picture: THULI DLAMINI

The stark choices facing the government are nowhere more apparent than in education, where free higher education has been allocated three times more funding than school infrastructure.

The government began providing higher-education bursaries to students from poor and working-class families in 2018, fulfilling former president Jacob Zuma’s promise to the national student protest movement that began in 2015.

The Treasury expects 2.8-million students at universities and technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges will benefit from these bursaries between 2018-2019 and 2021-2022.

Funding to cover their study costs, which is directed through the national student financial aid scheme (NSFAS), is set to rise from R27.1bn in 2018-2019 to R33.29bn in 2019-2020, and then increase to R37.9bn in 2020-2021 and to R40bn in 2021-2022, according to the Budget Review.  

These figures stand in sharp contrast to the allocations made to basic education for fixing school infrastructure: the revised estimate for the infrastructure backlog grant for 2018-2019 stands at R10.1bn and the allocation is set to rise to R10.5bn in 2019-2020, and then increase to R11.5bn in 2020-2021 and to R12.3bn in 2021-2022. The school infrastructure backlog grant is cut from R2.12bn in the current financial year to R1.8bn in 2019-2020 and to R1.63bn in 2020-2021, before increasing slightly to R2.19bn in the outer year.

“The school infrastructure grants give the lie to the rhetoric about prioritising the sector,” said Section 27 budget analyst Daniel McLaren. “Those who shout the loudest get the most benefits. That is clearly the case with Eskom, and it has been the case with higher education. What we need is a vision to spend funds more effectively and improve governance, not robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said.

In his budget speech to parliament, finance minister Tito Mboweni said more than R30bn had been allocated to build new schools and maintain school infrastructure and R2.8bn had been added to the school infrastructure grant to replace pit latrines at more than 2,400 schools.

However, Mclaren said much of the new money was replacing funds that had previously been cut.

The Treasury has also set aside an extra R105m in 2019-2020 to complete student accommodation projects at Nelson Mandela University, Sefako Makghatho Health Sciences University and the Vaal University of Technology.

Cosatu welcomed the budget allocations for school infrastructure and sanitation, but said clear dates and targets are needed for the government’s promises to be believed.

“Public works needs to be woken from its deep slumber to ensure learners and workers are safe in schools and public buildings” said Cosatu parliamentary co-ordinator Mathew Parks.

The basic education budget is set to rise from a revised estimate of R246.6bn for 2018-2019 to R262.4bn in 2019-2020, and then to R282.3bn in 2020-2021 and R302.8bn in 2021-2022. Compensation of employees accounts for about 77% of the basic education budget.

Cosatu said teacher-to-pupil ratios were rising and cautioned the government against “boasting about the declining numbers of public servants”, as it seeks to contain its wage bill. “Government needs to reduce the bloated cabinet and executive structures and not reduce and overwork service delivery workers,” said Parks.