/ 30 June 2008

FET needs research

Internationally, further education and training has risen dramatically up the political agenda since the start of the new millennium. The concerns of South Africa’s joint initiative on priority skills acquisition (Jipsa) and accelerated and shared growth initiative for South Africa (Asgisa) — that skills need to be built urgently to compete internationally, create jobs and reduce poverty — are shared by governments around the globe.

There is growing awareness that the boundaries between further education and [college] training (FET) and higher education are not inevitable, but have changed regularly over more than a century. There is also an emerging realisation that hard, separating boundaries can be reconceptualised as borderlands where there is potential for innovation and collaboration.

This international growth in acceptance of the importance of FET poses a challenging question for South African universities: what school or faculty of education deserves the name if it knows nothing about a part of education that serves well over a million learners across the public and private components?

The rapid evolution of the college sector points to the need for new partnerships that can help colleges respond to new challenges. For public higher education institutions there is a market opportunity to work with FET colleges in teaching and research.

A combined focus on research and teaching is vital for the higher education sector’s involvement with FET as it reflects the need for these two aspects to be balanced in higher education work. The combination of a focus of research and teaching is also important for status building for the FET sector, which is insufficiently valued by universities and other stakeholders. There is also a strong case to be made for teacher training (for FET colleges and other aspects of education) that is research-led or, at the least, research-informed. Increasingly, across Africa the weakness of teacher education is seen as being at the heart of poor teaching in schools.

Research on FET in South Africa has taken place largely outside the university sector. Published work has been dominated by the Human Sciences Research Council, with much important policy and evaluation work also being done by the National Business Initiative and the Joint Education Trust.

Almost all of this work has been donor or government-funded and applied rather than theoretical. It has been project work, allowing little time for detailed analysis or for thinking across projects. The resulting literature is largely ”grey”, hidden in project reports rather than found in refereed publications, of which there are few.

Inevitably, there are a series of key absences in the existing literature. Private provision is even more neglected than public. Curriculum and pedagogy received little attention in the period before the introduction of the National Certificate Vocational (NCV) last year and have not emerged yet as important research areas.

The NCV is the new FET college curriculum and qualification.

There has been little focus on students, lecturers and leaders. There is no work on the role of colleges in providing higher education, in spite of their long and continued involvement in delivering these at level five of the National Qualifications Framework. Crucially, from an academic perspective, there has been little engagement with international theoretical debates.

The current state of research capacity on FET is even more serious. There has been a dramatic loss of such capacity in the key research organisations in the past five years. The existing data is largely out of date and it is increasingly difficult to make policy research-informed.

There has been some growth of postgraduate level work on FET, including by college staff, but it is poorly articulated with international debates about vocational education and little engaged with important developments in economics and sociology.

The nature of the desired role of colleges in research needs to be considered carefully. It is crucial that they should not simply be sites for others’ research but should be setters of agendas and users of knowledge. However, there are some signs of hope, with some colleges setting up research units and several universities beginning to become involved in teaching and research to a small extent.

As with research on FET, there is little known about the state of teacher training for the FET college sector. Until recently the preparation of public college lecturers has been accorded little attention by the department of education. This was understandable in the context of the slowness of curriculum transformation. Thus, the education department’s attention to this issue since NCV’s introduction is welcome.

Unlike the case of teacher education for schools, there has not really been a system of initial teacher education for the FET college sector.

It has often been assumed that some artisans would naturally gravitate to the college sector and that their content knowledge mattered far more than formal pedagogical training. However, these assumptions were largely untenable, even before NCV radically changed the nature of provision.

There were some university programmes of teacher education for the college sector in the past but these appear to have ended. New programmes have emerged in certain institutions, but these are based largely on the National Professional Diploma for Education (NPDE).

There are concerns that NPDE is too theoretical and is being delivered by staff with little real college knowledge and experience. This is exacerbated by the lack of systematic mentoring of teachers in training; something widely seen as central to successful teacher development in the English experience.

At the heart of the challenge for FET teacher training is the need to respond to new curricula, content and learners. These clearly require new pedagogies, including a radical shift in approaches to learner support.

Recruitment, retention and development of college lecturers are entering a new era. We don’t know how initial teacher education and continuing professional development should link with broader human resource management issues, particularly as these have been largely devolved to colleges. Over time colleges in England have developed capacity to contribute to the staff development process. Whether South African colleges can eventually do this is worth considering.

Equally, there is a challenge of building higher education institutions’ capacity to deliver programmes for FET colleges knowledgeably and appropriately. With other stakeholders, they also need to address how progression routes both within the colleges and to higher studies can be built. Industry links are important for staff development too. This includes the availability of industry placements for full-time lecturers, but also colleges’ use of industry staff as adjunct staff.

South Africa’s FET college sector is growing but it will also take time to mature. The present is ripe for a new relationship with higher education institutions that can support this path to maturity.

Such a role is not just for universities of technology. Rather, and in keeping with trends in England and Australia, there is an important place for ”research universities” in partnerships between the further education and training college sector and the higher education sector.

Successful partnerships between universities and FET colleges require mutual respect and understanding. While colleges are less powerful and illustrious than universities, they are worthy of more trust and respect than often pertains.

Simon McGrath is professor of international education and development at the University of Nottingham and editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Educational Development. He has been the project director of an initiative funded by the British Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and carried out by the universities of Nottingham, KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape on how higher education institutions can build a stronger further education and training college sector. Participants recently discussed project findings at a workshop in Johannesburg.