Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO
Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu. Picture: PUXLEY MAKGATHO

The auditor-general has raised concern about the sustainability of the Department of Higher Education and Training after it incurred nearly R1bn in irregular expenditure.

In the department’s 2016-17 annual report, which MPs discussed on Wednesday, Auditor-General Kimi Makwetu pointed out that the department continued to carry substantial liabilities, which spiked in 2017.

Higher education was in "a negative overdraft and negative cash-flow" position and some of the department’s entities, particularly the sector education and training authorities (Setas), continued to underperform.

This raises questions about whether the government will be able to improve the sector as it continues to grapple with funding issues.

The sector has been rocked by protests, with students demanding free education. In August, the commission looking into the feasibility of free higher education presented its report to President Jacob Zuma. The auditor-general noted that the department had incurred irregular expenditure of R929m in the 2016-17 year, 94% of which has not been investigated yet.

Most of the irregular expenditure occurs in the Setas.

One Seta – the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority — misspent about R290m, and the National Skills Fund misused R170m.

Setas have previously been criticised for inefficiency, being a haven for corruption, for enrolling ghost students and for failing to address the country’s skills deficit.

There are 21 Setas that cover all work sectors. They receive more than R14bn in ring-fenced funds annually.

The auditor-general’s report also paints a bleak picture of the state of the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. It notes that 24 of the 50 TVET colleges received a qualified, adverse or disclaimed audit opinion.

The white paper for post-school education and training envisages expanding enrolments at colleges from about 700,000 to 2.5-million by 2030 to ease pressure on universities. Five TVET colleges have not yet submitted their annual financial statements, and some have not done so since 2014.

Most universities carry enormous levels of student debt, with some of the country’s institutions writing this off.

DA MP and higher education spokeswoman Belinda Bozzoli said: “This massive and unwieldy department has 78 entities reporting directly to it, as well as indirect responsibility for 26 Universities. Managing all of this is too much for it to handle on its current budget and staffing level, as our economy staggers under the burden of ANC failure.

“Our students in Setas, TVETs and universities are being seriously let down as the department and its institutions decay. The future of higher education looks bleak and this situation must be addressed with urgency,” she said.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said in a written reply to a question in Parliament on Wednesday that his department would investigate claims pertaining to predatory publishing, including investigations on the journal titles in question.

Predatory publishing involves open-access publishers who publish articles with little or no real peer review. The government pays a university about R100,000 for an academic article published in a department-accredited journal.

"If [the claims] are confirmed, subsidies will be withdrawn for articles published in such journals, in line with the Research Output Policy," Nzimande said.

From 2005 to 2014 South African academics published more than 4.200 papers that were "probably or possibly predatory", Stellenbosch University researchers found.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za

Please sign in or register to comment.