Again, students will bear the brunt of changes that have not been properly considered.
When Naledi Pandor was minister of education, her dream was to transform public colleges into autonomous, flexible and responsive institutions that would be in tune with the needs of the labour market.
To achieve this, she introduced the Further Education and Training (FET) Colleges Act of 2006, whereby all those lecturing at the colleges were to be employed by the college councils. She believed the councils could offer improved service conditions for those lecturers possessing scarce skills and those who excelled.
Pandor even envisaged that outstanding staff would be able to move from colleges to universities and vice versa—something possible only in a dispensation where salaries were linked to individual excellence. It was hoped that, by employing staff better equipped for their task, the public colleges would be able to improve on their dismal through-put rates. The lecturing staff, which had previously been employed in terms of fixed salary scales applicable to government teachers, were transferred in 2007 to the employment of the college councils.
FET colleges should be a very important feature our education landscape. We have about 2.4-million people between the age of 18 and 24 who are neither employed nor studying. Many left school early and their weak educational backgrounds render many of them unemployable, making them dependent on the state for social grants to survive.
Unfortunately, total FET college enrolments, about 400?000, amount to half the university student population—and it should be the other way around. So something needs to be done.
Nzimande shatters the dream with new legislation
But Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has introduced legislation, the FET Colleges Act Amendment Bill, that will shatter the dream of autonomous and responsive FET college institutions. His proposals will go a long way to centralising the management of FET colleges in his office.
The Bill will also put an end to the possibility of remuneration linked to individual performance. If adopted in its current form, the Bill will see core college staff employed by the minister of public service and administration. The responsibility for FET colleges, which in terms of our Constitution is shared between provinces and the government, will become the sole responsibility of the government.
This will need a constitutional amendment.
Before 2006, college lecturers were employed as educators. The Public Service Act does not provide for the unique requirements of employing lecturers. In the big picture of the public service, college lecturers would be a small group and it is likely that their interests would not be taken seriously in the relevant bargaining councils.
The proposed new dispensation would emulate schools in that, like school governing bodies, college councils would be allowed to employ extra staff over and above government-funded posts. But this could only work if college councils were able to raise additional funds in a sustainable manner.
Experience in our public schools has shown that these extra staff members seldom enjoy privileges such as permanent posts and pension and medical benefits. And their interests are not represented by any of the parties in the labour forums.
Why does Nzimande want to shatter Pandor’s dream for our colleges? Is his response appropriate for turning around the public FET colleges?
It is, by and large, poor bureaucracy that has led the majority of our public colleges into their current mess. FET colleges have been in a state of forced transition for more than 10 years—a nightmare decade for college councils and management. Uncertainty about budgets and programme delivery has caused great anxiety among staff.
The number of temporary staff rose by 39% from 2007 to 2009 (the last year for which data is available), and colleges continue to struggle to attract good lecturers. The impact on quality of teaching has been evident in the poor examination results of the national certificate (vocational). Only one out of every 20 learners (5%) who started with this programme in 2007 passed the final examinations three years later.
The colleges’ financial administration is weak, with the auditor general reporting that only 10 of the 50 public colleges submitted their annual statements for 2010 on time and, for the preceding year, only half of the colleges received unqualified audit reports.
Although caused by government action, this situation is now being used to justify centralising control of the colleges. So why are the colleges allowing this? The clue could lie in what one college chief executive told me: “Things cannot get worse at our public FET colleges and any change can only be an improvement of the current situation.”
What should Nzimande’s response have been? He should have studied the university sector to learn what distinguishes those institutions that are well managed from those that aren’t. That would have made him start with the composition of college councils, whose members should be selected by local organisations that have an interest in the output of the colleges—as they are at universities.
Councils must consist of people well versed in governance issues and skills training. All staff, including senior management, should be employed by the college councils, not by the government.
The performance contracts of college chief executives are currently a secret to many college councils, which should be directly involved in drawing them up. The government should assist college councils to form a central pension fund, similar to that at our universities.
Funding should have be made available to review the curricula of our college programmes and to bring this in line with present-day requirements.
Above all, colleges should be given far more clarity about their budgets and their future financial position. College councils should also be allowed to introduce new programmes gradually. Change is necessary and good, but the pace of transforming the public FET colleges has been too fast. The Bill’s proposed changes to the legislation governing FET colleges will bring about further disruption and centralisation.
All the indications are that government has not assessed the risks that the new legislation will bring about. This means that thousands of young South Africans hoping for quality skills training will again be the victims of political ideology.
Andricus van der Westhuizen is the Democratic Alliance’s deputy spokesperson on higher education and training.