Industry concerned about levies being used to fund universities.

Industry associations have expressed concern about Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande’s recent comments that the government might have to consider using “surplus” funds from the Sector Education and Training Authority (SETA) to help finance the R3-billion shortfall in university fees arising from the government’s decision not to increase university fees next year.

The SETA was established and registered in March 2000 in terms of the Skills Development Act of 1998 and is responsible for the disbursement of the training levies payable by all employers. These levies are collected by SARS via the Department of Higher Education and Training. At the time of SETA’s establishment the government said SETA funds would be disbursed through a management system motivated by skills requirement assessment and monitoring and that SETA would ensure that the skills requirements of the various services sectors were identified. The assurance that new entrants to the labour market would be adequately trained was given and the enhancement of the skills of the current work force was then also listed as one of the government’s main priorities.

Deryck Spence, Executive Director of the SA Paint Manufacturing Association, was “flabbergasted” to learn that the government might consider applying unused SETA funds for higher education. “SAPMA firmly believes this will be a severe setback for industry training,” he affirms. “SETA funds are for skills upliftment of the working force and are accrued from payments made by industry, for industry-specific training, not for university studies, or other crises that the government hastily has to channel funds to. This is yet another example of the ANC’s tendency to take the easy way out of any dilemma.”

Larry Feinberg, Executive Director of the Association of South African Quantity Surveyors (ASAQS), said although the Minister’s comments on obtaining funds from SETA surpluses still had to be clarified at the time he was approached for comment, ASAQS felt that raiding SETA or the National Skills Fund would be like “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. “It would mean sacrificing money that should be spent on artisan development to fund university studies,” Larry added.

Speaking in a personal capacity, Gauteng Piling chairman Nico Maas, a veteran of the SA building industry and former president of Master Builders South Africa and MBA North, said the funds paid by industry to SETAs amounted to billions of Rands. “Yet, ever since its establishment in 2000, the SETA concept has achieved virtually nothing,” Nico states. “Most of the people appointed to run it have not had the faintest idea of how to implement training, and corruption has been rife. Industry has struggled to claim back on training levies and has had hardly any return on the investment it has been forced to pay. So, I feel that if the government now wants industry to fund university education in a face-saving exercise, it would not be a major loss to industry, as we’ve had little benefit from the SETA concept in any event. There is, however, the danger that a new level of autocracy could be created which could end up with industry having to pay even more in future.”