Linchpin for skills

Minister of Higher Education Blade Nzimande is worried about the relatively low number of students in the higher education sector.

The number stands at about 18% of the 18- to 24-year-olds compared with rates in developed countries, which range from 30% to 70%.

In some cases this figure needs to be unpacked because the percentage may include students from the technical-vocational sector.

Any strategy to increase enrolments in the South African higher education sector faces at least three formidable challenges:

  • Underprepared learners emerging from secondary schools—problems, especially in languages and mathematics, are deep and pervasive in the school sector and are unlikely to improve significantly in the near future.

  • Funds are still insufficient to support the existing cohort of university students, let alone any substantial increase in numbers. This is despite government’s loan system, which has made significant strides to support disadvantaged students.

  • The pressure on academics to provide remedial tuition in addition to their routine duties of teaching, research and community engagement—dropout rates are already high and are likely to increase if universities take in more first-years.

This, of course, does not mean stringent efforts should not be made to improve the higher education system, without compromising quality in any way.

Earlier this year Ahmed Bawa and Peter Vale highlighted in an article a central deficit in the post-secondary system: the underdevelopment of further education, which they likened to an inverted pyramid. They said this is so not only in South Africa, but also in many developing countries.

There are about 800 000 students in the university sector but less than half that number in the further education and training (FET) sector; in the United States there are six to seven million students in the university sector, but double that in the community college sector.

Similarly, the technical-vocational sector is well developed in countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany and the Netherlands.

What are the advantages, benefits and challenges that face the FET sector in South Africa?

  • It costs considerably less to educate and train students than in the university sector; about 20% to 25% of the costs of a university student;

  • It offers a range of qualifications, from certificates and diplomas to associate degrees;

  • It offers a a wide array of courses and programmes—carpentry, plumbing, motor mechanics, television repairs, electricians, photography, computer studies, music, languages and myriad others;

  • Open and flexible admissions make the institutions highly accessible to students and members of the community of all ages;

  • Many of the emerging graduates of the sector are ideally suited either to be readily employed or to develop small, medium and micro-enterprises;

  • The better performing students can transfer to universities with credits being awarded for courses already completed;

  • Reverse transfer, that is students who have completed a university degree in the humanities and social sciences, can complement this with skills training of varying duration at technical-vocational colleges.

What contribution can universities make in developing the FET sector? There are three contributions of note:

  • Training the teaching staff of the sector, often a severe constraint in its development;

  • Establish agreements with FET colleges for transfer and reverse-transfer of respective students; and

  • Establish a research chair for FET studies to better understand the sector, diagnose weaknesses, identify strengths and find ways to promote and develop the sector.

  • In assessing the future of the FET sector the dual nature of the South African economy has to be considered.
  • First, high skills, high technology occupations: the so-called knowledge workers who drive corporate globalisation and employ a small segment of workers in the formal economy; and

  • Second, small, medium and micro-enterprises (SMMEs) that provide employment for large numbers of the informal economy workers.

The FET sector has the potential to provide the necessary skills and knowledge to large numbers in the informal economic sector, including the SMME sector, the unskilled and underskilled, high-school dropouts, university and technikon dropouts and the unemployed.

Considerable emphasis and faith is being placed on ‘learnerships” as a flagship solution to skills training for the South African economy.

The real problem is the separation of job training from education.

The challenge for Nzimande is to find additional resources to support development of the FET sector, without cutting funding to the universities.

Will the skills levy fund provide the answer?

If the FET sector is included, student figures in higher education of between 30% and 40% in a decade seems an attainable goal.

Jairam Reddy was the vice-chancellor of the former University of Durban-Westville (which merged to become part of the University of KwaZulu-Natal), chair of the National Commission of Higher Education, former director of the United Nations University’s International Leadership Institute and holds the chair of the Council of the Durban University of Technology. He writes in his personal capacity

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