/ 5 November 2010

SA cannot afford another false dawn

As an interested observer of the nascent and developing further education and training (FET) system in South Africa, I was delighted by the opportunity to attend the recent FET summit convened by Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande, and pleased to see that the Mail & Guardian had launched a supplement, Training for Life, to give some national coverage to what could accurately be described as the Cinderella of the South African education sector and to provide a forum for debate on its development.

I had, in a small way, been actively involved in the earlier attempts to reform and modernise the FET colleges in the early years of the 21st century, and maintained contact with stalled developments since then, so the thought of a concerted attempt to reignite the reform process was encouraging.

I was delighted, then, to have the opportunity to comment on the process from my perspective as a FET enthusiast and a practitioner with significant United Kingdom experience in colleges, a government agency, as a governor and in my current role as a third sector chief executive officer.

The decision to place FET and the Skills Education Training Authorities (Setas) in the new department of higher education and training was the right one, meaning that all the necessary levers were in one department, so the omens were good.

Attending the first day of the summit was also heartening. The keynote addresses by the minister and director general were notable, not just for their content but also their tone — far less authoritarian than in the past, and setting out an ambitious and demanding trajectory for the sector to play a vital role in the skills and social-cohesion challenge that faces South Africa.
The key questions for me were: “Is the sector up to the challenge?”, and “Does the government have the capacity and political will to do what is necessary?”

On day two, these questions were more acute. The subliminal messages from the podium on both days was that a sector that is virtually 100% black in its intake was being directed by a cadre of largely white “experts” — consultants and researchers with no track record of active service in the sector they are advising the government on. This is problematic on the political level and in terms of credibility among FET practitioners and especially with its student customers.

Secondly, I was disappointed by the poverty of the plenary debate from the floor, dominated as it was by self-interested comments about conditions of employment. I cannot remember one comment or statement about students. It felt as though reform was being done to the sector, not with it, with clear consequences for its long-term success, without a serious “hearts and minds” campaign.

The purpose of this article, therefore, is to offer an open letter to the government from the viewpoint of a South African exile (with dual citizenship) who wholeheartedly supports the government’s ambition, albeit that I question its capacity to implement its goals.

I further believe that South Africa has potentially much to gain by benefiting from the UK’s further education (FE) reform process, which started nearly 20 years ago and could learn much from our successes, and the many mistakes we made along the way.

South Africa does not have time on its side in realising its skills ambitions, and reinventing the wheel will slow down its progress considerably. So, in no particular order, these are the key issues I believe have to be addressed:

  • A funding methodology. This was a key element in driving and accelerating the reform process in English FE colleges. This does not need to be complex. In fact the simpler the better. Its key characteristic should be that it rewards successful outcomes for learners, assessed by their employability, so success could be either attainment of qualifications, employment or entrepreneurship, or a combination of the three. A simple funding methodology is far more effective than an army of bureaucrats, and far cheaper. Too often the dead hand of bureaucracy acts as a brake on innovation and a default to institutional conservatism.
  • An inspectorate. In tandem with the funding methodology, being periodically assessed by an expert, authoritative and independent inspectorate was a vital tool in raising standards in English colleges. Poor inspection reports led to bad publicity, reductions in funding and greater scrutiny. Based on 2009 data, English colleges had 81% success rates, based on the combined effects of the funding methodology and the inspection regime, as well as other factors. This inspectorate need not be large — South Africa has only 50 colleges to monitor — and would provide the government and the colleges themselves with impartial advice on the rate of progress towards a world-class system.
  • A new government relationship with trade unions. This is a massive challenge and is not by any means solely an FET issue. But the power of the trade unions, based on historical factors too complicated to address here, imposes an impossible obstacle to reform.
    Even the best leaders would find it impossible to make the requisite changes in the workforce and the workplace. In this relationship, learners (and potential learners) seem to have no strong lobby acting in their interest, so the status quo is maintained at their cost.
  • A FET leadership centre. The apparent absence of a service culture in the public sector in general needs to be addressed. In my view there needs to be a specialist leadership centre to develop the technical and people skills necessary to lead world-class institutions, however they are defined. This should not ape MBA programmes — it should focus on the hard skills of organisational leadership and the soft skills of leading people and creating a can-do, entrepreneurial culture that is a prerequisite for the more challenging fiscal future facing the public sector in general. Again, an inexpensive but necessary element. What South Africa needs are innovative leaders, not administrators of antiquated technical colleges.

Fundamentally, at this stage South Africa needs a quango (quasi-autonomous NGO) — an arm’s length body along the lines of the now-defunct UK Further Education Funding Council that drove through the first nine years of reforms — to implement the reforms mapped out by Nzimande. The process must be South African and black-led — for the reasons I have touched on — but there would be no shame in bringing in selected expertise from the UK to assist the process and to identify shortcuts wherever possible.

With some honourable exceptions, the number of local, national and provincial officials with the necessary skill, enthusiasm, imagination and resilience is pitifully small, or the system wouldn’t be in the shape it is in today — with 30 of 50 colleges in deficit and success rates languishing in the low 30%, using the very poor measure of throughput.

One thing is clear. South Africa cannot afford another false dawn in FET reform and the public purse will require a great degree of certainty of success before further funds are invested.

This is no time for amateurs. What is needed is a team of professionals who can create the sustainable system that South Africa needs to maintain its current status as the African economic powerhouse, and to compete effectively with the BRIC nations in the near future.

Robin Landman OBE is the chief executive of the UK’s Network for Black Professionals