/ 3 September 2010

Bridges to a better life

Bridges To A Better Life

One of the most important constraints on our social and economic development in South Africa is the shortage of skills.

The department of higher education and training has been established to develop an overall framework and plans for post-school education and training, whether it takes place in the colleges, universities, workplaces or other institutions.

It must address the challenge of accelerated skills development using all our existing capacity and developing new capacity to do so. We are faced with the challenge of reshaping the institutional landscape and giving it fresh direction and a heightened sense of urgency within the new framework.

Our educational institutions and our workplace skills-training system, based on the sector education and training authorities (Setas), have a central role to play in overcoming the skills challenges facing us. This week — and next — my department is hosting two high-level summits. Both are meant to consult stakeholders to harness their knowledge and experiences and to work towards the shaping of a common vision among all stakeholders.

The first meeting, taking place on September 3 and 4, is a further education and training (FET) summit, convened by a steering committee of all stakeholders chaired by the director general of my department. Its purpose is to discuss how to strengthen the FET colleges as institutions and develop a vision and plans for a way forward.

Discussions at this summit will be based on substantial preparatory work undertaken by some of the country’s leading experts and participants in the FET sector. They will deal with a range of critical issues of FET college governance, funding, programmes, the quality of teaching and learning, student support, staff development and some key short-term planning issues.

FET colleges prioritised
The FET colleges are being prioritised by government as a key instrument for stepping up both general vocational education and the development of skills for particular occupations. I see them as playing a particularly important role in the expansion of apprenticeships, learnerships and other forms of training requiring both theoretical and workplace-based practical instruction.

FET colleges must become educational institutions of choice and not just a fallback for young people who fail to get into university.

We plan to expand enrolments rapidly while at the same time improving quality. As anyone who has studied educational systems and education reform programmes will know, this is a very complex task. It is, however, what must be done and we need to undertake it with energy, careful planning and commitment by all who are involved in managing, administering and teaching in the colleges and with the cooperation of all stakeholders, especially employers in both the private and public sectors.

South Africa remains the most unequal society in the world and we need to see our work as playing a part in narrowing the inequalities. Racial inequalities are not unrelated to class. In the past 16 years the class gap among blacks has widened while there has been a slight narrowing across racial groups as a whole. This points to increasing levels of poverty for those on the lower end of the scale.

Part of the role of the FET colleges should be a focus on black economic empowerment through creating access to post-school qualifications that will make the difference between poverty and a better life. Addressing racial inequality must be an essential component of the way forward.

Addressing gender inequality remains a key focus area for government. One of the biggest achievements to date is that there are more female learners in higher education. However, women remain under-represented in scarce and critical trades and professions. The question for FET colleges will be how to position themselves to address this imbalance.

For FET colleges to become institutions of choice, they must make themselves accessible to people with disabilities. This must form part of the inclusive growth plan.

The country must make sure that we train people for the workplace and not for the grave. Addressing HIV/Aids must be critical to the vision, mission and goals of the college sector.

Colleges must be able to respond to national, provincial and local needs and there must be the understanding that colleges are not glorified high schools or semi-universities.

We need to understand the unique role of colleges in the skills development landscape and also reposition colleges in terms of access, availability and time — for example, colleges should consider being operational seven days a week.

The second meeting will be the skills summit, taking place on September 9 and 10. It will not focus on any one institutional form but examine the skills training system as a whole.

I have signed a performance agreement with the president that will guide the work of my department with regard to skills development. Broadly stated, the targets include:

  • The development of a skills planning mechanism to assist the department to plan for future skills needs;
  • The development of lower- and middle-level skills training for youth and adults, including training people for semi-skilled employment and sustainable livelihoods, as well as the training of skilled artisans and technicians;
  • The development of high-level occupational skills, largely in universities and universities of technology; and
  • The development of research and innovation to drive knowledge ­production and the development of new possibilities for economic development.

My department will need to develop close cooperative agreements and relationships with a wide range of stakeholders to meet all these objectives. The skills summit will serve to allow a dialogue among all constituencies with an interest in skills development, including, inter alia, the education and training institutions, the Setas, professional councils, employers, the labour movement and various parastatals and statutory bodies.

The work of government and other sectors in relation to skills development will be guided by the Human Resource Development Strategy of South Africa (HRDSA), which is a systematic response to the country’s skills challenge. The HRDSA, which will go before Cabinet and be launched by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe within the next few weeks, is designed to provide a national road map and so will not replace the ongoing work of government, business and labour. What it will do is ensure proper coordination, integration, planning, management and monitoring and evaluation of human resource development, with the aim of ensuring increased employment and economic growth, the reduction of poverty and improved social cohesion.

Supporting this strategy is the work of the Human Resource Development Council — a multi-sector, multi-stakeholder and expert-led advisory group appointed to volunteer its expertise in support of the country’s effort to improve outputs and impact in the areas of education and training, thus building the productive capacity of all South Africans.

All this work, including the two milestone summits, must coalesce to accomplish outcome five of the 12 outcomes set by the government — “A skilled and capable workforce to support an inclusive growth path.” It is a formidable challenge, but one that we are determined to achieve.

I am of the firm belief that dialogue among stakeholders and between them and the government is not something that should take place only at the kind of summits we are hosting today and next week. For it to be effective it needs to be ongoing and meaningful. Policies and practices must be subjected to continual scrutiny and adjustment. People with different and contradictory views should be able to express their ideas and test them against one another.

For this reason, I would like to congratulate the Mail & Guardian on the launch of its new title, Training for Life. I hope that it will endure and make an important contribution to a rich public policy dialogue and debate in the areas of skills development.

Dr Blade Nzimande is the minister of higher education and trainingl FET Colleges Summit: September 3 and 4, Birchwood Hotel, Boksburg, Gauteng. Skills Summit: September 9 and 10, St George Hotel, Irene, Gauteng