Amid protests over fees, historical debt and allowances, an increase in allocated funds is announced for higher education.

The 2023 Budget Speech delivered by South Africa’s finance minister, Enoch Godongwana, on February 22, 2023 failed to mention a budget allocation to institutions of higher learning, but students were not out of mind.

No specific monies were allocated to tertiary institutions, however, the budget allocation to learning and culture, which includes education, has increased from R441,5 billion to R457,1 billion from the previous year.

The allocation to National Student Financial Aid Scheme increased from R48,7 billion to R50,1 billion, which may see more students benefiting from the bursary scheme in the next financial year.

Histogram comparing the 2022/23 and 2023/24 budget allocation for learning and culture expenditure. Graph: Tannur Anders. Information: National Treasury. 

Pearl Mncube, an independent public policy analyst, told Wits Vuvuzela, “Increased allocations for higher education are absolutely essential, especially considering the several existing challenges within institutions that could be overcome as a result of this.”

“One of the biggest challenges has been ensuring increased access to institutions of higher learning,” she added.

Back in 2017, the government announced a policy for fee-free tertiary education. This has not been implemented to date. Mncube attributes this promise not being fulfilled to a combination of a lack of political will and a hostile economic environment.

Nimisha Naik, an economics lecturer at Wits University, told Wits Vuvuzela that it is not feasible to provide free higher education. “With the government debt still high and a focus to reduce this burden, the government cannot afford to fund tertiary education fees. Tertiary institutions require large sums to keep afloat. The government cannot pay for all fees, it is unaffordable,” she said.

She believes alternatives like sponsorships from the private sector which are repaid by working for the sponsor are a better way forward. “In this way, students gain both a tertiary qualification and work experience. This is something that is essential to match skills acquired and what formal sectors are looking for when hiring labour,” she said.

Leading up to the budget speech, several Wits students told Wits Vuvuzela that if they were in the finance minister’s position, they would allocate the national budget towards funding free education.

Ethan Sledge, a first-year astronomy and astrophysics student at Wits thinks fee-free education is a good idea, but doesn’t believe it is practical in South Africa. “We’re still developing, money needs to circulate [in] the economy… if we were a developed country, it would be possible”, he said.

The allocation to higher learning comes after protest action over registration fees and historical debt at several tertiary institutions at the start of the 2023 academic year.

FEATURED IMAGE: Archive photo of students calling for free education in 2017. Photo: Aarti Bhana