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Umalusi’s vision for a post-school system

Under the South African Qualifications Authority Act of 1995 the education and training system was structured in three bands — general education, further education and higher education — that together comprise the National Qualifications Framework’s 10 levels.

These levels collectively describe all formal qualifications, from the most junior to the most senior. But with the promulgation of the National Qualifications Act of 2008, there seems to be an emerging understanding that it is no longer educationally defensible to delineate the education and training system strictly in that way. The bands created 16 years ago have created multiple bureaucracies and unnecessary barriers to the learning trajectories individuals might want and need to pursue.

South Africa has about three million young people who have dropped out of formal education, are not in training of any kind, or are unemployed. This is a crisis that South Africans cannot ignore. It is clear that in order to establish a post-school system that will accommodate both young people and adults in this position, it would be both sensible and more meaningful to allow for a nuanced approach to qualifications development and the quality assurance.

Umalusi, the Council for Quality Assurance in General and Further Education and Training, has conceptualised a sub-framework of qualifications for general and further education and training (FET) in ways that will provide opportunities not only for school going learners but also for the large number of out-of-school youth and adults who need to enhance their chances of further learning and employment.

The framework for general and FET qualifications reflects several learning pathways to accommodate different target groups. For adults seeking literacy there are opportunities through to post-school education and training. The youth are accommodated in the general academic stream but are also afforded the opportunity to seek a “second-chance” matric or follow a general vocational stream (more fully described in “The twin pillars of further education“, M&G, May 13).

The internal logic of the framework makes it possible for any individual to transfer between the qualifications on the framework, but also to articulate their qualifications with those of the two frameworks of qualifications overseen respectively by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations and the Council on Higher Education. It is clear that a large proportion of the 18- to 24-year-old cohort is in need of post-school education at level five of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) — a level that is more akin to further than to higher education, as is the case elsewhere in the world.

This is the level on which Umalusi and the other two quality councils work together in quality-assuring such qualifications. After this point students can exit the system to enter the world of work, articulate with higher education institutions to proceed with diplomas or degrees or enter workplace-based learning opportunities. However, to date, the notion of joint responsibility for related qualifications, or shared levels on the NQF, has unfortunately met with some resistance.

This flies in the face of the intent of a single, integrated NQF and of what makes educational sense. To support the general and FET qualifications framework Umalusi has, over the years, introduced a robust approach to standard-setting; a process that takes into account the intended, the enacted and the examined curriculum. It is strongly supported by centralised external examination — still the most valid and reliable form of large-scale assessment.

The FET sector in particular is intended to articulate closely with the country’s social and economic development goals because it is located between economic and educational policy, between the state and the market, and between concerns with poverty and growth. But because this sector is arguably the weakest link in the education and training system, Umalusi has introduced a number of initiatives to strengthen and organise provision here and to support the offering of qualifications on its sub-framework.

In addition to accrediting institutions to offer qualifications its certifies, Umalusi has established an Adult and Vocational Education and Training Forum at which public and private institutions engage in policy debates — the fourth of these forums was held in March. To extend its engagement with adult learning and FET providers Umalusi also hosts an annual provider conference, the fourth of which will be held in September.

Umalusi has undertaken capacity-building in the general and FET sectors by establishing a “convener system” where institutions participate in curriculum and assessment committees and in the development of qualifications. The long-term vision developed by Umalusi for a post-school system encompasses literacy, general academic and vocational education and training from levels one to five on the NQF. This vision is of a coherent but diverse and differentiated system that includes public and private institutions.

International literature indicates that some form of post-schooling education drastically improves individuals’ chances for decent work, and this underpins Umalusi’s view that the system must provide as many opportunities for further learning as is possible, affordable and meaningful. The question that urgently needs addressing is how the system can optimally respond to this critical need by making use of the existing systems and expertise and without creating unnecessary bureaucracy.

Dr Ronel Blom is a former senior manager in the evaluation and accreditation unit at Umalusi. This is the fifth in a six-part series in the Mail & Guardian by arrangement with Umalusi, aimed at promoting greater awareness of its mandate and functions

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