Disaster of historic proportions was averted last Wednesday after parliament approved a request by the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Peggy Serame, to withdraw P2.49 billion from the development budget and finance a supplementary budget.
Had the government been unable to raise this sum or in the unlikely but probable scenario that parliament rejected the request, the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology would have been unable to sponsor all the qualifying students for first year at tertiary education institutions. As a matter of fact, the Minister of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, Dr. Douglas Letsholathebe, couldn’t make any commitment to sponsor all qualifying students when pressed to do so by the Selebi Phikwe West MP, Dithapelo Keorapetse, two days earlier. Oddly, Letsholathebe’s earthshattering statement somehow went unnoticed and didn’t even stay a minute in the news cycle.
For the first time in Botswana’s history, Form 5 school leavers remain in the dark about whether or not they will be going to tertiary education institutions in the form of universities, colleges of education, technical colleges and brigades. Via a parliamentary question last Monday, Keorapetse, sought to find out from Letsholathebe whether “tertiary institutions will ultimately open without first year students who are still waiting for government sponsorship; “when the applications for sponsorship will be received and responded to”; and “what the current budget for first year tertiary students and are the funds still available as approved by Parliament” was.
Evidently translating the English text of the answer into Setswana as is becoming the norm, the minister noted that his ministry would be asking parliament for supplementary funding, something he would need the support of MPs for. Regarding when applications would be processed and the outcome communicated to candidates, Letsholathebe would only say that he had directed education and training providers (ETP) and the Department of Tertiary Education Financing (DTEF) to consult on the matter. As some have suspected all along, the minister would later confirm that there is currently not enough money in government coffers to sponsor first-year students. He revealed that some P627 million had been budgeted for first-year students but that there was a budget shortfall.
In a multi-pronged supplementary question, Keorapetse wanted to find out whether the budget shortfall was a result of money being diverted elsewhere, why the ministry has not seen it necessary to update worried parents and students about this anomalous situation and whether the ministry is going to reduce its intake for first-year students for the 2021/22 academic year. Letsholathebe admitted that keeping both parents and students in the dark was a mistake – for which he apologised. The kicker though was what he said with regard to whether the ministry would be able to sponsor all qualifying students. He couldn’t make any firm commitment and revealed that if the money was insufficient, that may affect the numbers that the ministry would be able to sponsor for first year. Regarding the latter, he used a Setswana metaphor “ba ba tsenang ka seatla” (a “handful” in English) to indicate how low the number of students that the ministry get to sponsor for this academic and financial year might be. At the point that Letsholathebe said this, the Minister of Finance and Economic Development, Peggy Serame had yet to present the Supplementary Estimates of Expenditure from the Consolidated and Development Funds. She did so the following day, mentioning Letsholathebe’s ministry among the eight from which MFED had received supplementary budget requests.
“With respect to the Ministry of Tertiary Education, Research, Science and Technology, a sum of P1 164 450 710 is requested,” Serame said. “Of this amount, P401 880 700 is required to cater for new students who meet the admission requirements, while the balance of P762 570 000 is required to restore the amount originally approved for tuition fees and allowances, which the Ministry used to pay outstanding invoices from tertiary service providers for financial year 2020/2021.”
The minister explained that the funding gap under Tertiary Education Financing partly occurred as a result of the increase in the number of students awarded sponsorship during the 2019/2020 financial year. This latter created a backlog of payments to tertiary education institutions, which backlog was carried over to the current financial year.
“Moreover, the budgetary shortfall was compounded by some additional costs arising from the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Ministry had to pay additional allowances and travel costs following the abrupt closure of tertiary institutions. Due to lockdowns, academic years were affected and elongated, thus resulting in increased student costs. The Ministry also incurred costs of transferring International Aviation students to South Africa and Namibia to further their studies outside the country following the problems associated with the local institution they were previously enrolled with. Furthermore, aviation students who transferred to South Africa and Namibia had to convert their trainee flying licences to suit the aviation training requirements in the two countries.”
The delay in processing admissions is bound affect plans that parents and students should have made by now. Ordinarily, it is parents who pay for the transport of their children as well as living expenses before they get their first student allowance. Raising this money is not an easy thing for an ordinary Motswana and can take whole months as they negotiate the sale of property like cattle and harvest produce. This means that even after DTEF issues sponsorship letters, some students will find it extremely difficult to travel to their new schools.