The report said the picture shifted slightly when the salary data was represented as a percentage of total spending by each institution.
Unisa was still on top, having spent 74% on compensation of employees and only 25% on goods and services in 2018. The report said the institution's cost structure was different from others as it was the only distance-learning institution.
The University of Limpopo followed Unisa in second place, with compensation of employees taking up 70% of total spending.
Mangosuthu University of Technology made the lowest contribution to compensation of employees (48%), but the highest contribution toward purchases of goods and services (45%). A closer look at the data reveals that Mangosuthu increased its goods and services spending by 33%, from R263m in 2017 to R350m in 2018. This jump in spending was mainly due to the payment of operating leases for student accommodation.
The report also compared how higher education institutions compared against the rest of the state.
The average spend by higher education institutions on salaries – as a percentage of total spending – was 61%, while the figure for the entire South African government was 42%. This was according to consolidated data from 2016/17 derived from financial statements collected from 705 state institutions, including national and provincial government departments and municipalities.
For the private sector, the figure spent on salaries was much lower. The formal business sector spent 14% of total expenditure on staff, according to data for the second quarter of 2018.
The report gave reasons why the proportion was so much higher for higher education institutions compared to the private sector. It said universities required large numbers of highly educated employees for teaching and research. Many of the staff had PhDs and required correspondingly higher salaries, compared to workers with lower academic qualifications.
The report added that activities taking place at higher education institutions focused on producing intellectual knowledge, rather than physical goods.