They are the only hope for further education and training for those who cannot go to university.
How will our post-school institutions, in particular further education and training (FET) colleges, meet the aspirations of those who see education and training as a way to improve their life chances?
This is the question I posed in last week's first article in an attempt to assess the progress and policy to date ("Making public colleges effective", Mail & Guardian, December 7). To recap, I argued in it that:
l We urgently need sustained advocacy of a clear, easily understood college mission as well as the study offerings tied to that mission;
l We need to do whatever it takes to get employers to open their doors to FET colleges so that our students are able to practise their knowledge and skills in real workplaces; and
l FET colleges must be supported to make college campuses and hostels attractive and welcoming spaces for students, for whose success both academic and psychosocial support systems are equally important.
This second article turns to other areas that need urgent attention if we are to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of youths younger than 24 who have failed matric or passed without a university entrance, leaving them with limited options.
The department of higher education and training's green paper, released in January this year, proposes major improvements for the post-school sector.
For public FET colleges the expectations are immense: they must increase student numbers from 332 580 in 2010 to one million by 2014 and then to four million by 2030 (including adult education).
This is a daunting prospect for colleges already battling to cope with increased numbers occasioned by bursary funding, because the knock-on effects of increased student numbers on facilities, equipment, teaching staff and support services cannot be underestimated.
A difficulty recognised by the green paper — although it is one that has not inhibited the setting of targets — is that reliable statistics on college enrolments, throughput rates and employment prospects have not been readily available.
Both the large-scale audit of public colleges conducted in 2010 by the Human Sciences Research Council and a report this year by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation and the FET Institute comment on the problem of obtaining reliable data within commonly understood parameters. For instance, "enrolments" are not the same as "head counts", because the older, so-called Nated (or technical) courses enrol students per subject.
This means that enrolment figures do not give us an accurate picture of how many students are being taken up in colleges, or the effect student numbers have on college resources. Pass rates are also usually recorded per subject, but they do not convey how many students actually pass all the subjects needed to achieve the qualification.
We need reliable, audited statistics on student enrolments, pass rates, certification rates and uptake into employment as an essential basis for proper planning and target setting.
A second major policy change this year, the FET Colleges Amendment Act, has resulted in provinces being immersed in planning for the transfer of colleges from provincial to national structures — the so-called migration of provincial FET college staff and administrative functions.
College lecturers and support staff were transferred from provincial education departments to college councils after the 2006 FET Colleges Act and are now to be transferred into the employ of the national department, which means protracted negotiations will once again take place in the national bargaining forum.
There are about 8 000 lecturers employed in colleges, which should increase proportionally to cope with the threefold increase in student enrolment by 2014.
Studies conducted in the past five years have confirmed that college lecturers require development in various areas of the job, including in subject content knowledge, teaching skills and understanding of the workplace.
In August, the long-awaited policy on professional qualifications for FET college lecturers was released and is awaiting finalisation. This policy sets out professional qualifications for teaching in FET colleges and a new remuneration framework is expected to follow soon. Indications are that higher education institutions are already exploring the development of suitable qualifications to fill this gap in provision.
Staffing matters have to be stabilised as soon as possible with a remuneration framework that recognises professional, well-qualified and dedicated college lecturer and support staff cohorts. College teaching needs to become attractive to both those in and outside the system.
Finally, the concept of "differentiation" in public colleges has not really gained traction since the FET round- table discussions of 2010. In view of the pending configuration of the post-school system, we should take a more rigorous look at what differentiation in the post-school sector might mean.
Pertinent to this discussion would be the broad, encompassing role envisaged for FET colleges in the green paper vis-à-vis a smaller, more tightly focused role in light of the community education centres the green paper proposes for community-based, general adult and youth education.
The differentiation debate could assist in identifying institutional types more distinctly with what they offer rather than imagining institutions that could be all things to all people. Lessons learned in the differentiation of universities could be shared.
Notions of programme diversity, niche area delivery, flexibility, innovation and local responsiveness are associated with differentiated institutions.
Along with those should go respect for the roles of different institutions. This respect should be reflected in equitable funding norms that aspire to quality education and training for all and are cognisant of local institutional contexts.
I do not claim in these two articles to have done justice to the scope and complexity of unfolding events in the public college arena. Policy changes have placed enormous demands on college councils, managements and staff through a multiplicity of instructions, meetings, briefings, memorandums and templates over the past three years. But it is clear that public FET colleges are a critical part of our post-school system and often the only option for thousands of students. Colleges need support and stability to ensure that the aspirations of all those who desire vocational education and training are met.
This is the second and final part of Dr Joy Papier's assessment of progress in further education and training (FET) policy and practice. She is director of the FET Institute of the University of the Western Cape and writes in her personal capacity. Her first article, published last week, is online at mg.co.za/FET