Battle of the higher education qualifications

Aphiwe Deklerk, Ngoako Matsha, Sipho McDermott, Ayanda Sitole & Sibongile Nkosi

Two formidable barriers stand in the path of the government’s massive drive to increase enrolments at further education and training (FET) colleges.

The first is a strong social perception that anything other than a university is a poor second choice. The second is that the education system still does not provide school leavers and their parents with adequate information about post-school options and their financing.

Both these barriers became evident in interviews the Mail & Guardian conducted in February. These followed Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s urging in January that young people “explore actively” options other than university.

In a statement made the week after the matric results were released on January 6, Nzimande outlined the options facing the class of 2010: “While we recognise that many of these students will enter university, there are also other options for them, which may include training as artisans at FET colleges or registering for learnerships through the Seta system, participating in the National Skills Fund [NSF] programmes, joining the South African National Defence Force as part of its military development programme, participating in the expanded public works programme or even taking a gap year before deciding on what to do next.”

Last week Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s budget allocated substantial increases to FET colleges, Setas, the NSF and the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS). Budget documents said the increase should boost enrolments for college programmes funded by Nzimande’s department by 50% this year alone.

But how successful this massive government drive will be is an open question. Matshidiso Munyai from Venda is studying for a national diploma in accounting at the University of Johannesburg (UJ). “When I say I’m from a university back home people tend to respect you and the village takes pride in you,” she said. “We like the status of university.”

She said that her school encouraged its learners to work hard so that they could go to university. “They discouraged us from going to colleges because they are now taking grade nine learners.”

Sometimes parents and their children differ on these priorities. Elaine Chiat of Johannesburg has a daughter in grade 12 and said she would be happy for her children to make their own choices, as long as they pursued some form of post-school education. But her daughter was convinced “she will go much further in life if she has a university degree”.

But Reketa Manhique’s parents brought pressure to bear on her. An accounting student at UJ, she said: “My parents told me strictly that I am definitely going to university and nothing else.”

Joy Papier, director of the FET Institute at the University of the Western Cape, said she thought many parents saw university education as the “golden opportunity” that they themselves had not had because of disadvantaged backgrounds, and that it was often not the choice of the students but of their parents.

Yet is it clear that many do not have adequate information about non-university options when they have to decide what to do after school. Munyai admitted that if she had had more information about FET colleges, she ‘would have looked more into” that option.

Matric student Lillian Malambe, a learner at Emshukantambo Secondary School in Soweto, feels that lack of information. “It needs to be accessible for students,” she said. “There needs to be career guidance to help matrics with making these choices.”

Bonny Feldman, the communications and outreach officer at NSFAS, said: “The youth in poor and rural communities often lack the exposure to media such as the internet, newspapers, television and public libraries. As a result they may not be well informed about higher education opportunities, financial aid available to them or different career options.”

Papier said there was still much work to be done on advocacy for vocational education and FET colleges. Colleges were “a healthy option for students who did not get into university, especially given their updated curricula and the growth in the sector”.

Munyai agreed that there were many misconceptions about the quality of education provided at FET colleges. “I have a friend at Vhembe College [an FET college in Limpopo] who is doing a certificate in accounting and she seems to be studying the same chapters [of her textbook] as I do in one of my subjects,” she said.

Munyai said her friend would have an advantage over her in the job market. After 18 months of study she would take up an internship, but Munyai herself would become eligible to enter the job market only after three years at university.

Dika Mokoena, the deputy principal of the Central Johannesburg College, said FET colleges were viable alternatives to universities. He pointed to the scenes at UJ in January when thousands of new matriculants applied late for admission.

“It was not a coincidence that UJ and not Wits had large numbers of students flooding in for admission. UJ positions itself to offer programmes similar to those found at FET colleges,” Mokoena said.

Colleges could give quick returns by identifying skills that were needed immediately and that could be addressed in colleges’ three- to six-month programmes, he said.

The dramatic scenes at UJ could point to the high premium students place on universities rather than colleges. Khanyisa Botha failed to be admitted to UJ and is doing a bridging course to increase her chances when she applies again. She said she would not consider an FET college. ‘It would be my last resort. It would be giving up. I guess studying at a university gives you a better chance at succeeding in life.”

Refilwe Mahambe, a grade 12 learner at Soweto’s Emshukantambo Secondary School, said: “If I don’t get accepted by UJ I would consider a bridging course and then I would apply again the following year.”

Manhique, now studying at the UJ’s Soweto campus, was in the queues outside UJ in January. “If your marks are good enough why waste your time on other options? You will only look at other things because your marks are low. I would never go to an FET college—all I know is that an FET college qualification is much lower than university.”

One of those whose marks were not good enough is Theo Molobane. Now enrolled at Central Johannesburg College for a business management certificate, he is determined to get a university degree. “I have big shoes to fill because I’m being groomed to be chief executive at my dad’s company, so I need to be at the same level as those from university,” he said.

Even Shaheen Ahmed Abdullah, whose father is the head of an FET college, thought of university as first prize. A third-year accounting science student at Wits, Abdullah said his father’s view was that a college education was “really good”. Abdullah said: “You can become a plumber, or use instruments. Job opportunities are plenty and it’s well paid.”

But he chose to go to university instead. “The chances of a university student getting a job are much more—that’s how life is.”

The government’s Industrial Policy Action Plan II, launched last year, identified a shortage of 40 000 artisans in the next five years. Nzimande said recently the policy would ensure that 10 000 artisans a year “qualify and find employment by 2014”.

Trade union Solidarity’s Paul van Deventer said that “we should have more students at colleges and FETs than at universities”. As the director of the union’s Sol-Tech training college, Van Deventer believed successful countries had more people in training as artisans than at universities—as in a pyramid, with numbers decreasing as it goes higher.

He said South Africa’s problem was that it had an inverted pyramid and as a result there were too few artisans. He rejected the view that FET colleges were for students who could not make it into university, saying artisans had “highly specialised skills that require a strong knowledge of maths and science”.

Selling fruit and vegetables to study at university

Soweto-born Tendayi Sithole was determined to get to university—and had to take a tough, two-year detour to do so.

In 2002 Sithole finished matric with a university-entrance pass that he hoped would take him to Rhodes University. But the company that had offered him a bursary went into liquidation.

Unwilling to join the growing numbers of matriculated but non-graduate youths in South African townships, he sized up his options. “In 2003 the South African Defence Force wanted people to join the army but I wasn’t interested,” he told the Mail & Guardian. “I just said, ‘You know what, I will go to university.”

Despite the army’s promise of a full-time job and a chance to study further, Sithole decided to raise money his own way.

He started to sell cigarettes, chips and peanuts on trains between Johannesburg and Pretoria. He was later joined by his high-school friend Peter Moloi and they expanded the business, also selling vegetables and fruit on the street and using concerts in the township as selling opportunities.

After 11 months the two had managed to save R12 000. “It was very tough,” Sithole said. “We were making sacrifices and I remember at the time I only had one pair of shoes.”

He used his share of profits to register for a BA in political science at Unisa in 2005, supplementing the high costs of tertiary study with a loan from the state’s National Financial Student Aid Scheme. But he still needed extra money and during his second year worked as a teller at a food store.

The route he took to raise money for his university studies was not only tough but also humiliating. “I was a laughing stock [in the township],” he said. “I didn’t let that distract me from what I wanted.”

For him, a degree was the only road to a better life. And it worked. In 2008 he obtained his BA in political science. He then enrolled for an honours degree and became a junior lecturer at Unisa in November last year. He is now studying for his master’s degree.

Sithole’s determination paid off for him but he knows his path might not be everyone’s. “You can follow any other route,” he said. “But as long as you know that you want to go to university, even if it takes you five years, you will get there.”—Aphiwe Deklerk


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