At a tough 2019 budget, Finance Minister Tito Mboweni announced that education and culture would remain the biggest hole in the pocket of Treasury as they remain set to receive the lion’s share of the budget.

FINANCE MINISTER Tito Mboweni’s Budget Speech on Wednesday, February 20, was heavy on biblical references but fell short of delivering the holy grail of free education.

Quoting from Zachariah 8:12, “For the seed shall be prosperous; the vine shall give her fruit, and the ground shall give her increase, and the heavens shall give their dew…” Mboweni’s 2019 allocation for higher education is a significant increase on the R57 billion allocated in 2018.

“Over the medium term government will spend R111.2 billion to ensure that 2.8 million deserving students from poor and working class families obtain their qualifications at universities and TVET colleges,” said Mboweni, who has only been in office for four months since replacing Malusi Gigaba in October 2018.

However, he reiterated that free education remained the government’s “flagship” approach to higher education, and that this policy meant that higher education spending would increase at slightly below 14% on average over the next three years.

Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) spokesperson Lunga Ngqengelele said that the 2019 allocation was short of what his department had expected, but it would be useful in confronting the challenges of higher education.

“As the DHET we welcome the funds allocated to us. We believe it will go to some extent to helping solve the strains of free higher education. It is never going to be enough considering the amount needed to provide for students, but we do understand the competing needs of other government institutions,” Ngqengelele told Wits Vuvuzela.

He added that the funding was a necessity for the department to show commitment to the free higher education mandate. “It can never be burdensome, it is education and education is a necessity.”

Business Day reported on Wednesday that the current budget projected that funding to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) would rise from R27.1 billion in 2018 to R33.29 billion in the current financial year. The funding is expected to rise to R37.9 billion in three years and to R40 billion in 2021-2022.

#FeesMustFall student leader, Busisiwe Catherine Seabe, was concerned about the lack of clarity surrounding the allocation of the funds.

“It does not specify where and how the money will be allocated. Will it be used to clear student debt or help alleviate the student accommodation problem? It is worrisome because the money will go to NSFAS and the problem is that they are already failing to allocate the money properly,” she said.

Seabe called for measures to be put in place to hold the NSFAS accountable.

Head of the Wits School of Economics Professor Jannie Rossouw said that the allocation provides assurance about the government’s commitment towards free higher education but that it would prove its worth over time.

“It shows that education is a priority for the government and that is welcomed. The real job is fixing the whole system. It will have to be a 12-year project which will improve infrastructure and quality across the sector,” Rossouw said.

FEATURED IMAGE: Wits is one of the many institutions that have been involved in the struggle for free higher education   Photo: Elizabeth-Jane Ringrose