South African universities and technikons are braced for a serious funding squeeze, which they say could force staff redundancies and spark widespread student unrest next year.
The cabinet should decide the national education budget in the next few weeks and the education department and institutions are worried about the effects. A funding decline is predicted to be at least 3 per cent in real terms, combined with a forecast 6 per cent rise in student numbers, most of them needy.
Cash-strapped institutions could be forced to cut staff and services, and face campus disruptions in 1997 when able students find themselves excluded from higher education because they are poor.
Brenda Gourley, chair of the Committee of University Principals, described the possible cuts as a catastrophe. Professor Gourley, who is vice chancellor of the University of Natal, said that if subsidies were cut the university could experience serious difficulties keeping on staff, and could be forced to make redundancies.
"We can no longer afford to dig into reserves to find student bursaries and loans. Next year we may not be able to afford to fund returning students who have passed their exams, much less new entrants," she warned.
The government set up a national student financial aid system this year to help the growing number of needy students pay their fees and relieve institutions of massive student debt. Universities alone are currently owed Rand280 million (Pounds 36 million) in unpaid student fees. But it is struggling to raise the necessary funds and next year the scheme will be broadened to include students at colleges, spreading aid more thinly among institutions.
Universities and technikons in South Africa endured a decade-long funding squeeze until last year, when there was a real terms increase in funding to the sector.
"It is important that a reverse trend does not set in," says John Samuels, deputy director general of education. "But I'm not optimistic in the current climate."
He said the department was expecting an increase of 4 to 5 per cent in the higher education budget. With inflation running at around 8 per cent, this would mean a real terms decline in funding exacerbated by rising student numbers.
"In our submission to the budget committee, we made the point that higher education needs more resources," Mr Samuels said. "There are urgent issues facing the sector, including student financing for 1997. Much of the tension in higher education can be traced to financial pressure on students. With larger numbers of students entering the sector amid greater financial uncertainty, it is not a healthy situation."
Although the government committed R300 million a year for three years to student financial aid (the first tranche was available this year), education department officials say the amount is not guaranteed. Education minister Sibusio Bengu has asked international donors for help in raising R650 million for student aid. "We don't have the exact figures about the relationship between need and amount, but the need is probably vast. Getting additional funds is a priority," said Mr Samuels.
The department will also have to fork out large amounts of redress funding next year to historically disadvantaged institutions. Redress funds totalling several hundred million Rand are expected to be allocated next year but the amount is likely to be tiny since the estimated scale of redress needed is R4.5 billion.
Universities and technikons are assuming that student aid and redress funding will be top-sliced off the education budget, before allocating institutional funding for 1997. Professor Gourley said that after years of declining funding, many institutions no longer had the organisational slack to absorb further cuts.
There were limited possibilities for income generation, much of the budgets were non-discretionary, and the costs of non-discretionary services such as electricity were rising. "We can't cut many more costs unless we switch off the lights."