School teacher's desk. Picture: THE TIMES
School teacher's desk. Picture: THE TIMES

The tough spending decisions taken by the government loom large in education, which sees deep budget cuts to poorly performing programmes that will delay plans to expand student accommodation and improve school infrastructure. Plans to expand free school meals to more needy children have also been scaled back.

The Treasury plans to cut government’s spending by 261bn over the next three years, and education is among the biggest casualties, with a R7.1bn cut to its baseline over the medium term.

The lion’s share of these cuts are to infrastructure spending (R5.2bn), but the allocation to financial aid for students attending technical and vocational and training colleges (TVET) has also been scaled back due to lower than anticipated enrolments in the sector

The revised infrastructure spending plans will affect both higher education institutions and schools.

“These reductions are expected to cause revisions to infrastructure plans and delays in project completion,” the Treasury said in its Budget Review.

The Treasury has slashed R2.3bn from the infrastructure allocation to TVET colleges, and R621m from university infrastructure. It has also cut R1.85bn from the education infrastructure grant and reduced the school infrastructure backlogs grant by R122.8m, which is likely to delay progress in ensuring all schoolchildren learn in safe classrooms with appropriate sanitation facilities.

The national school nutrition programme grant has been cut by R123m over the medium term, which is not expected to affect meals for children in quintile 1-3 schools, but will delay plans to extend the service to children in quintile four and five schools.

Consolidated government spending on basic education will not keep pace with inflation, growing on average by just 3.8% a year over the medium term. The basic education budget is set to rise from R262.5bn in 2019/2020 to R293.2bn in 2022/2023.

Higher education sees its budget allocation rise 4.6% over the next three years, increasing from R112.1bn in 2019/2020 to R128.4bn in 2022/2023. The Treasury expects inflation to average 4.5% over the period.

The budget documents cast harsh light on the department of higher education and training’s progress in expanding access to SA’s 50 TVET colleges, with the Treasury cutting R900m from the National Student Financial Aid Scheme's (Nsfas’s) budget for TVET student bursaries over the medium term due to a lower than expected intake at these institutions.

Nsfas provides financial assistance to eligible undergraduate students at universities and TVET colleges. The higher education and training department has long struggled to meet the National Development Plan’s goal of reversing the current situation in which more school leavers enrol at universities than TVET colleges.

Nsfas expects to fund one-million university students and 870,000 TVET college students over the medium term. Its budget allocation is set to increase at an average annual rate of 7.3% over the period, from R33bn in 2019/2020 to R40.8bn in 2022/2023.

Early childhood education, which is funded via the department of social development, gets a boost, however, with an increase in the subsidy rate per child financed by savings at the SA Social Security Agency. The subsidy per child is set to increase 23.8% over the medium term, rising from R15 a child in 2020/2021 to R18.57 a child in 2022/2023.

The budget allocation for the early childhood development grant rises from R1bn in 2019/2020 to R1.5bn in 2022/2023. The government plans to provide access to early childhood education to almost 700,000 children under the age of four by 2022/2023.

Correction: February 27 2020
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that  the government plans to cut spending by R156bn over the medium term. The Treasury plans to cut expenditure by R261bn.

kahnt@businesslive.co.za