Blade Nzimande is correct to highlight the sector as crucial for the country's development agenda.
We should not be surprised that the majority of our young people resist enrolling in further education and training (FET) colleges and aim for universities instead.
The green paper on post-school education and training released by Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande in January for public comment makes this point by highlighting the uncomfortable truth that the FET sector is small, weak and not up to the challenge presented by a burgeoning post-matric sector.
It is an unfortunate historical fact that the technical and vocational education today’s FET colleges provide was used for rehabilitative and ameliorative purposes for poor white males as far back as 1910 and for decades after that, too.
Because of this, all races have long viewed vocational education as inferior in quality to university study. Unfortunately, this stigma still haunts these institutions today.
But we in the FET college sector have to be the first ones to admit that the stigma is not attributable entirely to the course of history. The colleges also face a plethora of other challenges, but they are ones we feel the department of higher education and training is competently addressing.
We have witnessed a series of the department’s initiatives, from the national skills summit in September 2010 that brought the whole sector together under one roof to debate its challenges and craft a way forward to the national skills accord signed by organised labour, business and community constituents.
The value of collaborative initiatives
These efforts have yielded innumerable positive offshoots and highlighted for us the value of collaborative initiatives of this nature. The most significant of these initiatives is the thorough review of the FET colleges curriculum that the minister announced at the 2010 summit. We are convinced this marks a significant shift in thinking about the role FET colleges need to play in a developing economy.
The official acknowledgement that some colleges need more support from the department has been another major stride, as has been the assertion in the green paper and elsewhere that some colleges should be allowed to operate with minimum departmental intervention.
The paper’s emphasis of this point is an acknowledgement of the different environments in which FET colleges operate and the varied challenges therefore confronting them.
As principal of Ekurhuleni West College, I think this acknowledgement also recognises the prowess of some high-performing colleges such as mine.
Public FET colleges are located within the broader context of the country’s developmental agenda. They target unemployed or underemployed youths and adults and others who need to update, reskill and retrain for South Africa’s changing economy. When the minister released the green paper, he said: “The key area of focus for expansion must be the public further education and training college sector.”
As a sector, we are appreciative of the attempt to align the post-school education and training system with South Africa’s overall development agenda and enthused by the synergies created through links to various development strategies such as the new growth path, the industrial policy action plan 2, the human resource development strategy for South Africa 2010-2030 and South Africa’s 10-year innovation plan.
The vision is that greatly expanding the FET colleges sector will yield an expanded cadre of artisans and other mid-level skills for a developing economy.
Options for streamlining the curriculum
The green paper proposes three options for streamlining the colleges’ national certificate vocational, or NCV, programmes, the formal name for the curriculum that started replacing much older programmes a few years ago. The paper’s options for a curriculum that would deliver an employable student and increase the number of artisans are:
1. The curriculum should be aimed primarily at students who have completed grade nine and might need to be simplified;
2. The curriculum should be aimed primarily at students who have completed grade 12, have additional entrance requirements for specific programmes and it could be strengthened in certain areas; and
3. Two types of curriculum programmes should be developed—an extended one aimed at grade nine pupils and a shorter one for those who already have their matric certificates.
In our view, option three is the way to go. It would shorten the period of study currently offered for students with matric and it seeks to develop vocational skills early in the schooling system by maintaining an extended programme for students with grade nine.
The green paper refers to the research done in 2007 on what our sector calls the “neets” (“not in education, employment or training”). This showed that the country had about three million neets between the ages of 18 and 24 and that the majority of them comprised those who had passed grade nine but not grade 12. Option three would definitely accommodate these young people.
Skills development is critical to the development of our economy as a country. The creation of jobs is a logical progeny of skills development. The green paper makes the critical point that the training of artisans has declined and that these curriculums have not been sufficiently updated.
This means the youth of this country (and, because of my role, I also specify the residents of Ekurhuleni district) are invited to swell the ranks of FET colleges and demand relevant curriculums to increase the number of artisans.
The mayor of Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality has declared the area an aerotropolis and I believe Ekurhuleni West College is at the cutting edge in this regard. For instance, we have programmes such as aircraft maintenance and avionics at our Kempton Park campus and a memorandum of understanding with South African Airways’
The sector recognises and applauds the determination of the government to invest more money in recapitalising the FET colleges after realising the 2006 recapitalisation was not enough. The R1.9-billion allocated to colleges then only scratched the surface of the infrastructure needs at many colleges.
The green paper correctly points out that the autonomy of colleges is linked to the flexibility with which we can meet real skills needs and that some colleges have dismally failed to achieve that, especially in the rural areas. But we are now ready to exercise high levels of flexibility in the delivery of our programmes.
We know colleges need to attract skilled lecturers from industry and remunerate them appropriately. We should be able to invite lecturers from universities too. We acknow-ledge that lecturer development is vital and we would also suggest the department look at in-service training centres. Lecturers need to be exposed to industry workshops. For instance, a partner such as the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality would be strategic for such purposes for my college, which urges the municipality to expedite our initiative to sign a memorandum of agreement.
Ekurhuleni West College challenges the municipality to join us in a united front to lobby industry in the Ekurhuleni area actively on matters such as work-based exposure and employment. For our part, we seek not only to produce job seekers but also job creators. We agree that we will not seek immediate and short-term results, because that would be suicidal for South Africa’s economy. We agree with the green paper’s proposal that differentiating among degrees of autonomy for FET colleges is necessary.
The funding of public FET colleges has been a thorny issue for some time and we are encouraged by the department’s proposal that fiscus and levy-grant funding be co-ordinated.
The review of college funding norms now on the table is long overdue. But in line with the spirit of the FET Colleges Act 16 of 2006, we believe the colleges should be encouraged and given the capacity to strengthen streams of funding beyond those the green paper mentions.
Employed as teachers and not treated as teachers
We not only welcome but are also thrilled by the green paper’s proposal that college lecturers’ conditions of service be reviewed to make sure that they are not employed as teachers and not treated as teachers.
College principals and deputy principals should prepare well for the new, expanding FET colleges and capacity-building for college management will be pivotal.
This will allow a college to retrain and upskill people who cannot attend full-time classes or prefer to study on Saturdays.
Here, the development of lecturers and the intention to interact with universities on programmes that will build lecturer capacity are encouraging.
We also welcome the paper’s assertion that FET colleges should be institutions of choice and there should be a seamless articulation from a college to a university.
The history of South Africa has hurt us and we cannot afford to let it continue hurting us any more: unemployment and poverty must be eradicated.
Hellen Ntlatleng is the principal of Ekurhuleni West College in Gauteng, which comprises six campuses (www.ewc.edu.za). This is an edited version of her address on Friday last week in Boksburg at the Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality Youth Summit, “Mainstream Youth Development through Sustainable Socioeconomic Growth”
The green paper on post-school education and training remains open for public comment until April 30 and can be downloaded from www.dhet.gov.za