FET colleges need vast improvements if they are going to compete with universities, experts say.
Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande has repeatedly touted further education and training (FET) colleges as a solution to South Africa’s education woes—but students have a different view, eschewing FETs in favour of universities.
South Africa’s inability to adequately train and educate many of its young people was brought into dramatic relief this week when a woman died in a stampede at the University of Johannesburg.
The situation at the university may be extreme—it is centrally located and offers both degrees and vocational diplomas—but all of the country’s universities are under pressure to admit more students than they can reasonably accommodate.
With 2.4-million youths between 18 and 24 not engaged in any form of education, training or employment, FET colleges could be well placed to fill that gap.
There are 50 public FET colleges spread across 263 campuses around the country that cater for about 220 000 students. But the facts indicate that South Africans have lost faith in FET colleges.
“College is definitely a second-choice option for students despite the fact that it provides very real employment opportunities,” said Seamus Needham, research planning manager at the University of the Western Cape’s FET Institute.
One factor discouraging students from studying at FET colleges is their poor reputation. The Democratic Alliance’s spokesperson on higher education, Juanita Kloppers-Lourens, said that the sector was in a “dire state” and that many of the colleges were “dismal”.
Education analyst Graeme Bloch agreed that the FETs were something of a “mixed bag,” saying “there are some very good ones but there are also some very appalling ones.
“Vocational study should be part of the options that you have after matric but the FET colleges are not very good and they are also very full.”
Another factor discouraging students from opting to study at FET colleges is the poor articulation between high school, FET colleges and universities.
FET colleges offer “Nated” trade qualifications or vocational “NCV” courses but generally universities do not give credit for Nated qualifications, even at grade 6 level—the highest available.
Needham said: “What would be useful is if these courses also provided meaningful routes into university study, should students choose that.” This would make the courses more attractive to those who do not qualify for direct entry into university, he said.
The University of the Witwatersrand’s education policy unit director, Peliwe Lolwana, agreed, saying the curriculum at FET colleges tended to be “restricted”, which would not appeal to people who wanted to study academic subjects such as law or business.
She said if FET colleges wanted to attract more students they should explore the idea of offering an expanded curriculum that would lead to an “associate degree”, which is common in countries such as the United States, Canada and India.
The degrees are usually offered at community colleges or technical colleges, run over two years and are equivalent to the first two years of study in a four-year degree, thus providing students with a bridge into university at a later time.