Universities

There's a sharp edge to Blade's plans

Paul Kgobe

Contrary to recent criticism, the new white paper prioritises student success and access equally.

Minister of Higher Education and Training, Blade Nzimande. (Madelene Cronje, MG)

Responding to the recently released white paper on post-school education and training, David Macfarlane and Victoria John provided an interesting read and analysis ("Blade banishes quality to the margins", Mail & Guardian, January 17). 

The article highlighted some of the white paper's key proposals, including ones related to transformation and expansion of the sector. The expansion will, for example, see the introduction of a new type of institution in the post-schooling terrain — the community colleges, which the article rightly applauds as important in "rescuing the marginalised millions". These colleges will absorb the millions of youths and adults who have never attended school or dropped out without formal qualifications.

The article concluded that "there is no point in increasing access without seriously improving success". This is both perceptive and important: access without success (and quality) is undesirable. 

But the article also argued that "how the white paper intends to do that [improve success and quality] remains as radically unclear as the green paper was". 

It is this assertion that is worthy of some critical reflection: Is the white paper unclear on how to improve success and quality?

Over-simplification
To suggest that proposals regarding how to improve success remain as radically unclear in the white paper is perhaps a gross over-simplification, if not a reflection of a partial reading, of the document. A few examples will illustrate my point here. 

With regard to colleges, the white paper explicitly recognises that improving access and success should necessarily involve improving learning and teaching, and to this end it proposes a number of interventions. 

These include the regulations for minimum qualifications for vocational educators in colleges that are already in place, improving student support services (including academic support) and finding workplace opportunities for students, for which ring-fenced funding will be made available — "ensuring that teachers have the capabilities and support to perform their function at a high level, providing the necessary infrastructure and equipment, and collaborating with employers and training providers in designing curricula", the paper says.

Further, the paper proposes the establishment of a new body, the South African Institute for Vocational and Continuing Education and Training, whose responsibilities will include providing support to colleges, developing innovative curricula for the college sector and improving the quality of curricula, upgrading the technical knowledge and pedagogical skills of staff in colleges in collaboration with universities, employers and experts, and initiating ongoing research and scrutinising issues related to college management and student support. 

With regard to universities, the paper acknowledges some of the challenges to do with access, success and output rates that Macfarlane and John also note. It points out that the relationship between equity of access (quantity) and equity of outcomes (success) will receive substantial focus. 

A concrete plan
Some of the proposed interventions for improvement in this regard include developing a concrete plan to address the challenges of future staffing of South African universities, supporting the development of lecturers' teaching skills by providing financial assistance, recruiting retired academics to ease over-large classes where possible and improving student support services. 

The section on providing open learning in diverse ways also touches on how the white paper proposes to improve success and quality. These include proposals to enhance materials design, increased use of digital technology, professional development for staff and strengthening the quality of distance programmes.

To suggest that the paper is "unclear" on how it proposes to improve success in the post-school education and training sector thus grossly ignores these and many other proposals to address success contained in the document. 

The paper is a 76-page document that makes far-reaching proposals on the subject. There are many examples in the document, if one dares to read it carefully. 

What is required is to subject the many proposals to scrutiny with a view to assessing their limits and possibilities for transforming the post-school education and training sector. 

Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande should urgently develop a detailed implementation plan for the many proposed interventions so that the public can engage with it meaningfully.

Paul Kgobe is the director of the Centre for Education Policy Development in Johannesburg

Originally published in: Getting Ahead

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