Jacob Zuma’s promise in December of widespread fee-free university education will consume R57 billion of the R85 billion Treasury had managed to cut from the medium-term budgets of all departments.
This year fee-free university education will cost an estimated R12.4 billion.
This rises to R20.3 billion next year and R24.3 billion the year after that. Future decisions on historic student debt, changes to the income threshold defining “working class” students and other interventions could still “raise the cost of the programme significantly”, warns the budget review released on Wednesday.
The combined concessions made so far will effectively double the state’s expenditure on universities between 2017 and 2021 – from R41 billion to R80 billion.
The rate at which enrolments at universities are expected to increase is a dismal 0.02% a year.
At this rate universities will have little over 1.3 million students in 2030 against a pre-existing target of 1.6 million at the end of the period covered by the National Development Plan.
At the same time, the seemingly indefinite freeze of the technical and vocational college (TVET) system is set to continue.
The new budget forecasts TVET enrolments to remain unchanged at 710 535 up to 2021.
This is in stark contrast to the plan before the Fees Must Fall movement where the plan was to have the TVET system massively expand and eclipse the university system as the mainstay of “post-school” education.
The colleges are nonetheless getting funding increases meant to improve infrastructure and give its student body more fee subsidies even while enrolment stagnates.
The Budget vote for higher education allocates most of this to the national Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which is the vehicle through which students from working class households will get their fee-free education.
NSFAS funding was R10.1 billion this past year but will double to R20.3 billion in the coming year – and then spike up to R30.8 billion in the 2019/2020 financial year and R35 billion the year after that.
These increases reflect the first cohort of first year students getting fee-free education this year and then their progress into second year while new subsidised first years enter the system. NSFAS represents the bulk of the R57 billion price tag with the rest made up of larger subsidies to universities to keep on freezing fees at 2015 levels for large parts of the student body.