File photo: Reuters

Durban - South African universities continue to take strain in the face of insufficient government subsidies, massive student debt and stagnant staff numbers.

The budget pinch threatens the ability of higher education institutions to meet the targets set for it by the National Development Plan (NDP), attendees at a seminar on the financial sustainability of the sector heard on Wednesday.

Held by the University of KwaZulu-Natal branch of the National Tertiary Education Union, the gathering brought together representatives of academia and the Higher Education Department.

Guest speaker Phumla Mnganga, the chairwoman of the UKZN council, affirmed that financial sustainability was a concern for universities the world over.

Because of historical legacies, for certain universities the budgetary balancing act was more difficult than for others.

Mnganga said that challenges to financial sustainability in the sector included the costs related to a growing student population, efficiency, and financial mismanagement.

She said that UKZN fought against passing its increasing costs on to students (in the form of tuition hikes), although its fees were lower than other top universities.

Shrinking government subsidies have put pressure on the other two sources of income for South African universities: tuition, and third stream income which typically includes research grants and donations.

The NDP acknowledges the “considerable strain” univer-sities are under. Funding lags behind the increase in enrolments and the consequences have been slow growth in the number of lecturers, and “creaking” infrastructure.

The government aimed to increase enrolment to 1.6 million students by 2030, and for at least 5 000 students to be capped with doctoral degrees every year.

In a review of higher education funding released late last year, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande conceded that by international comparison, the level at which universities were funded was low.

The same review named inadequate state spending as a factor hindering the development of the next generation of academics.

For UKZN, more than 60 percent of expenses were for personnel costs.

Its student debt totals between R500m and R700m, and it is mulling over a hike in student registration fees as a mitigation strategy.

Brenda Swart, Nzimande’s director of financial and physical planning, on Wednesday said that on average the government funded 40 percent of a university’s budget for general operations. However, institutions needed to maximise their revenue streams and identify additional sources of funding.

UKZN’s deputy vice-chancellor of teaching and learning, Professor Renuka Vithal, said universities needed Nzimande’s department to fight for a bigger slice of the pie from national Treasury.

Some of the UKZN academics and students who attended on Wednesday complained of excessive workloads and overcrowded lecture halls.

But Vithal said an analysis had revealed more than 400 modules at UKZN were taught by academics who had enrolments of less than five students.

Also, the numbers showed that UKZN had enough space for all its students.

The problem was they did not stick to their timetables, and flocked to the lectures which are held earlier in the day.

The Mercury