In the MTBPS, Pravin Gordhan announced that the government has provided for an increase in spending on university fee subsidies in response to the large-scale student protests.

On top of the extra R16-billion additional funding allocated in February 2016, the government has now increased funding to higher education by allocating a further R17.6 billion over three years to subsidise poor students.

The movement of university students demanding “fees must fall” has placed the issue of education funding at the centre of the policy debate.

Two concerns lie at the heart of the issue. First, despite massive increases in allocations to the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), the enrolment of academically deserving students from poor communities has grown faster than available funding. Secondly, there is no clear national framework for financing students who – although not affluent – are above the modest threshold established by the NSFAS means test. As a result, many students face financial hardships that undermine their ability to succeed academically.

Over the past 20 years, government has significantly expanded funding of education. Basic education is the largest item in the national budget. However, the education system is not achieving the desired outcomes. Priorities for government in the years ahead include expanding access to and the quality of early childhood development, overcoming institutional weaknesses in basic education, broadening access to effective vocational and technical skills, and improving the impact of resources devoted to vocational training. In all these areas, additional resources may be needed – and strong interventions to unblock institutional constraints are required.

Government’s current policy framework calls for the progressive expansion of post-school education within available resources. The largest gains in student access are envisaged in technical and vocational colleges. Improving the quality of teaching at these colleges and building stronger links with industry – so that skills are relevant and can support economic growth – are policy imperatives.