THREE years after South Africa's first democratic elections, the redistribution of higher education funds from historically privileged to disadvantaged universities and technikons is to begin in earnest.
The problem is that the budgetary pie from which different slices will be cut has shrunk - and that needy black students are likely to be the victims. Institutions which received low funding under apartheid are being favoured in "secret" budgetary allocations for 1997. They will also benefit from a R250 billion (Pounds 32 million) redress fund, to be established next year and allocated once an audit of urgent needs has been completed.
Redress money will be used, among other things, for new buildings and equipment, academic and human resource development, installing information technology and improving library collections.
But even historically disadvantaged institutions will mostly be worse off following a cut to the nearly R5 billion higher education budget of 9-12 per cent.
Universities and technikons, already upset by the tardiness of government in deciding their allocations only weeks before their new financial year, have responded angrily to cuts. The University of Pretoria is down R43 million on it budget; the University of Cape Town R30 million; Stellenbosch R24.6 million; Cape Technikon R5.2 million; and the historically black Peninsula Technikon R11 million.
Formerly white universities, especially but not exclusively, have warned of the possibly disastrous consequences of eroding the sector crucial to South Africa's economic success. The cuts are likely to result in job retrenchments, course closures and reductions in students - the latter in direct contradiction to government expansion policies. Equally worryingly, institutions are talking about increasing students' fees - Peninsula Technikon's will be up 20 per cent next year instead of a planned 7 per cent - and cutting student loans and bursaries funded from reserves and elsewhere.
South Africa's fledgling student financial aid scheme, which last year received R300 million from government, has been cut by R50 million for 1997. There are likely to be fewer or smaller loans and bursaries available to poor students, and they will be spread more thinly across the institutions since colleges are to be included in the scheme next year.
Institutions are bracing themselves for widespread disruption when students return to campus with the qualifications, but not the money, to secure a place.
Some have warned that they may not be able to accommodate returning students, let alone new ones.
It is hard to dispute better funding for institutions that have been unfairly deprived in the past. Throwing money at "substandard" institutions may be regarded as wasteful, particularly if the redirection of money undermines institutions that are good: the result will be a "levelling down" of standards.
But it is equally true that to achieve the standards essential to produce the skilled graduates South Africa needs, requires resources in the first place. How are deprived institutions to improve without better funding? In its recently published higher education green paper, the government said it is committed to preserving what is good - and then thinking of redistribution.
It has also been suggested that some of the "ethnic" universities created by apartheid, but never given a chance to succeed, should be closed: that they are beyond hope. That will not happen, first, for historical and political reasons, but also because if student numbers are to double to 1.5 million in the next ten years - as proposed in the green paper - more rather than fewer universities and technikons will be needed. So what is to be done? The education department says it will continue fighting for an adequate higher education subsidy. But any concessions from the state expenditure department are likely to be minimal.
Education officials are themselves unhappy with higher education's slice of the cake. But they point out that the cuts are from budgets that were greatly increased and that institutions tend to overstate their budgetary needs.
In 1997 the state will fund 59 per cent of historically white universities' 1997 budgets compared with 68 per cent last year. Allocations to other institutions vary, but are generally less severe. Student fees bring in about 20 per cent of institutions' budgets, meaning that "white universities" will have to earn 21 per cent of their income from other sources and will have to slash their planned spending. And while the government is undermining some of its own higher education reforms, by slashing the sector's budget, the cuts will speed up other proposals - those, for example, calling for rationalisation, regional collaboration between institutions to end the costly duplication of courses, and a cheaper means of delivering higher education.