FETs must up their game

Further education and training (FET) colleges will have to increase their pass rates by up to half again if they are going to have appreciable success in stimulating short- to medium-term economic growth.

Government draft discussion documents admit that FET colleges have a “history of underfunding and inefficiency”. They say systemic inefficiency “manifests itself in low pass, success and throughput rates. The average NC(V) [national certificate (vocational)] subject pass rate for 2009 was 59,7%; for Report 191 the average subject pass rate was 51,6%.

“This represents an unacceptable loss of skilled persons to the labour market [and] a substantial unwarranted financial burden on the fiscus,” the documents say.

The department of higher education and training (DHET) believes the throughput rate must increase to 80% ‘if the system is to make an impact in the short to medium term on skills needs, particularly in the area of youth between the ages of 18 and 24 years”.

Alternative to matric
In education-speak NC(V) programmes are three-year interventions that give grade nine learners an alternative to an academic matric. They were introduced to FET colleges in 2007 as qualifications designed to provide both theory and practice in real or simulated workplace environments. Learners were further expected to study mathematics or maths literacy, languages and life orientation.

They replaced the old one-year Nated (now called Report 191) courses, which were reintroduced this year because of learner and industry resistance to the NC(V) concept. Nated courses, commonly known by their N1 to 3 descriptors, require learners to spend nine months of the year working and the remainder in the classroom.

One discussion piece, “Aligning planning and funding for increasing access to post-school education and training in 2011 (and beyond)”, points to government keynotes such as the current Medium Term Strategic Framework 2009-2014, the Human Resources Development Strategy and the president’s emphasis on the need to increase apprentice and artisan training.

“The beneficiaries of these initiatives are in particular the high-risk categories of the population, namely young people who are the most disadvantaged by the lack of absorption into the economy,” the document says.

“Unless there is a significant shift to increase resources to the FET colleges sector, it is unlikely that the aspirations of youth and the objectives of the democratic state will be achieved.” As reported in the Mail & Guardian, about 43% of seven million 18- to 24-year-olds “are not in education, employment or training of any kind”.

The document says that “current enrolment in the education system is significantly skewed towards schools and university education, with the result that total enrolment (or participation) exhibits an abnormal hourglass shape”.

This is reflected in resource allocations—in this year’s DHET budget, R17,5-billion of nearly R22-billion earmarked for public education institutions went to universities, while only R3,8-billion was channelled into the college sector.

There are three million frustrated young people sitting at home and this number grows by more than 500000 each year. There are about 220 000 learners—about 58% of them enrolled in NC(V) programmes—signed up at public FET colleges and another 100 000 at their private counterparts.

No funds
The department plans to increase public college enrolment to one million learners by 2014. It initially envisaged that 350 000 of these—250 000 on three-year programmes and the rest on one-year courses—would be funded by the taxpayer to the tune of R13,288-billion over and above its annual fiscus allocation, but recent indications are that its hopes will be dashed.

“There isn’t the money,” director general Mary Metcalfe said.

That leaves only the National Skills Fund (NSF) and monies allocated at the discretion of the country’s 23 Setas (sector education and training authorities). This potentially amounts to another R3-billion a year. There are also accumulated NSF reserves thought to be more than R5-billion.

It’s extremely unlikely, though, that the Setas and their business and labour stakeholders will allow wholesale looting of the fund. For one thing, they are obliged to support those private providers of education and training that offer relevant vocational programmes that their government-funded brothers do not.

For another, the Setas are accountable to their stakeholders for the effective use as well as disbursement of training grants, as are the ­custodians of the NSF.

Widespread acceptance
There is widespread acceptance in Seta ranks that partnerships with the public FET sector are essential and unavoidable—given that they report to the DHET as much as to their individual boards. However, there is equally widespread scepticism based on the colleges’ track records.

One of the foundation documents for the national FET summit starting on Friday (September 3) states that “colleges are generally weak in their capacity to raise additional revenue from alternative sources.

“While there are a range of examples of colleges engaging with Setas and companies to offer particular programmes, the current image of the colleges, particularly in terms of poor quality, undermines their capacity to meaningfully target private sector funds. The question of quality is critical if colleges are to achieve sustainable growth.”

It says that there are further concerns about the colleges’ inability to undertake effective enrolment planning as well as their financial management.

“Many colleges do not have chief financial officers or senior accounting personnel with the necessary qualifications. Many colleges do not appear to be able to manage procurement, accurately track costs and monitor outstanding debts. In addition, it would seem that management systems in colleges are fragmented and there is a lack of integration of enrolment and student monitoring data, and broader college management data.

“As a result, colleges are not tracking payments against programmes and are unable to ascertain what payments have been made for each programme.”

For 10 years the Setas have been lashed by the government and their own constituent companies for not demonstrating the financial prudence and corporate governance that is demanded of supposedly mature institutions. They are unlikely to forget their lickings just because their FETs-in-law are broke.



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