Durban. SOUTH AFRICAN universities are bracing themselves for another round of tight government funding in the new year.
The size of the financial pie may be the same as this year's, but universities need more to meet the growing expectations of poorer aspiring students. They fear that in redressing the balance between historically black and white universities, some will be worse off.
The historically white universities, most of which now have a majority of black students, expect this, while historically black universities are likely to receive another round of redress funding. Technikons (polytechnics) could also score under a government formula aimed at encouraging vocational study and applied sciences.
Education minister Sibusiso Bengu came under harsh criticism from university principals this year for his late announcement of the complicated subsidy formula by which state funds are channelled to the tertiary sector.
The complaint was that it made budgets, which run from January to December, impossible to finalise. With cutbacks around, this could fuel student unrest next academic year as faculties do not want to accept students without guarantees that they will receive either sufficient government subsidy or student loans.
In expectation of continued tight funding, many universities have already embarked on restructuring programmes.
The University of the Wi****ersrand, which went R12 million (Pounds 1.5 million) into the red for the year, has cut support staff and is considering cuts to academic staff.
Wits registrar Derek Swemmer said: "We don't like deficit budgeting and hope that we will be able to work with balanced books in 1998. We are operating on conservative estimates and expecting that tertiary funding will decline over a five-year cycle. We have gone through the first year of pain and are expecting more."
The university is working on a three-year rolling plan. "The problem is that it is dependent on having clear commitments from government on their funding proportion over that period. In any case, for 1998 the department will still be working to the old system, which introduces a number of uncertainties," said Dr Swemmer.
"There is no cyclic concurrence, with the government budget running from April to March of the following year, and there is no clarity on how the total amount available for funding universities will be top-sliced to allow for redress to historically black institutions."
He said Bengu's policies were good but needed "tweaking, if government recognises the nuances the end result should be satisfactory". One example was the ratios of races in the student body. The natural feeder area for Wits gives it a demographic profile that is inevitably different from the national demographic profile, with more white students. The University of the North's profile is also likely to differ from the national profile, with too few white and Asian students.
"If we can plan with the assumption that government will understand and tolerate such nuances, things should work out well," said Dr Swemmer.
At the University of Cape Town, which is also budgeting according to the new three-year rolling plan and has a deficit this year of some R8 million, there have not been cutbacks, but the threat is real.
Helen Zille, of the public affairs division, said that the university was determined that if it had to trim, it would not be on an equal attrition or random cuts basis, nor would there be a blanket ban on filling vacated posts.
At Natal the administration intends shedding 650 academic and non-academic posts over a five-year period, largely through attrition and voluntary retrenchments.
Among the Afrikaans universities, under even more threat than the English-language institutions, the University of Stellenbosch is considering the closure of the departments of Afrikaans cultural history, archaeology and anthropology.
Whatever the government's subsidy turns out to be next year, one thing is sure: not everybody will be happy. South Africa's government simply does not have the resources to satisfy historically black universities' demands for redress at the same time as historically white institutions' need for financial security and maintenance of standards.