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‘Deep concerns’ over South African university funding

Image: USAF

Exclusive: USAF chief Ahmed Bawa fears system is on brink of crisis

South Africa’s higher education system is reeling from the myriad challenges of the 2020 academic year, with a possible financial crisis looming in 2021, the chief executive officer of Universities South Africa has warned. 

“We are deeply concerned about whether some of the institutions are going to be able to manage the short-term financial crisis,” Ahmed Bawa told Research Professional News in an exclusive interview this week. 

Unsurprisingly, the Covid-19 pandemic created immediate budget challenges for South Africa’s university sector, says Bawa. These pressures came when the public purse was already under strain, with belts being tightened across government spending. 

“There were significant expenses to prepare universities for remote learning,” Bawa explains. Keeping campuses safe as they reopened after the hard lockdown was another drain on resources, as was dealing with defaults in tuition fee payments, on which universities depend.

Exposed fault lines

These mounting pressures laid bare the inequalities in South Africa’s higher education system, Bawa says. Students from poorer backgrounds faced disadvantages accessing online content, while many also struggled to find a quiet place in their homes to work. 

“What became very apparent with the pandemic was just how significantly unequal our system is,” Bawa says. But, he points out, it also galvanised a renewed commitment from all of South Africa’s 26 public universities to work together to address the divided legacy of the country’s education system. 

Compared to a year ago, he says, there’s much more collaboration and much stronger commitment to building partnerships.” For example, there is work to create a national digital learning platform that will offer the same digital services to staff and students, whether they are based at leading research-intensive institutions or former polytechnics. 

A bleak outlook

But Bawa fears the coming financial year could bring more woes. Core university subsidies, which were largely spared last year, could be on the chopping block in next month’s 2021/22 budget. 

“We are expecting a further cut in [the] subsidy. If there’s a 5 per cent cut in that, it would have very serious consequences for all universities, not just historically disadvantaged ones,” he says.

Research funding was cut last year to redirect money to the pandemic response. Bawa says USAF is lobbying to boost research spending, or at least to limit further cuts. 

“We are trying to convince the government that it’s not a good idea to cut research and innovation funding when the economy is down,” he says. USAF is talking to international research funders and embassies to reassure them that South Africa’s research system remains viable for investment.

Business also has a role to play, Bawa adds. Last year, several South African companies, including banks and mobile data providers, helped universities cope with challenges caused by the pandemic. “We aren’t talking about billions of Rand, but we are talking about tens of millions of Rand,” he says. 

However, he admits that building partnerships between universities and businesses that are sustainable long-term remains a challenge. 

Uncertainties remain

The 2020 academic, delayed by the pandemic, is on track, says Bawa. So far, ten universities have completed the 2020 academic year, and the remaining 16 will do so by March. 

As for 2021, Bawa is confident that universities will be able to complete it in the coming calendar year, provided there are no further Covid-19 shutdowns: “One of the things we have been doing is to build a social compact between students and staff to galvanise a co-responsibility to manage outbreaks.” 

Several uncertainties remain, including whether students from other African countries who went home for lockdown will be able to return from abroad. Such students make up the majority of South Africa’s international students, who constitute nearly a third of the total student body. Travel options for incoming students are limited as new virus variants of concern, one of which was first isolated in South Africa, have fuelled border closures and flight cancellations.

There are problems going the other way too—a headache for South African students set to take part in exchanges abroad. “Many countries have put a travel ban on South Africans. That’s an issue,” Bawa says. “We are just going to have to manage the international student terrain carefully. We don’t have all the solutions yet.”