/ 22 July 2011

Cleaning the pool of qualifications

Central to the discussions on establishing a coherent post-school system is the need for a diverse qualification mix that will address the education and training needs of the country and provide meaningful learning for the 18 to 24-year-old cohort of youth.

But for Umalusi the challenges of quality-assuring such a system are complex and we know we have to develop our tools in tandem with the ongoing conceptualisation of the post-school system itself.

As the state’s quality assurer, Umalusi understands that the mandate of public and private further education and training (FET) colleges lies within the broader context of the country’s developmental agenda. The FET colleges as we know them now emerged from the restructuring of the 128 racially distinct technical colleges previously administered by 10 education departments (under the apartheid arrangement of governance).

The public FET college sector is now made up of 50 colleges that are fairly homogeneous in character: generally speaking, they offer the new national certificate (vocational) courses, the older, so-called Nated or N courses, and in some instances industry-specific courses.

The private FET college sector, however, is made up of a multitude of providers. Some offer national qualifications certificated by Umalusi; others offer “provider qualifications” or partial qualifications and short courses that are considered to be responsive to the demand and supply side of labour and business.

In the main the colleges operate at levels two to five of the national qualifications framework (NQF) — that is, at the equivalents of schooling grades 10, 11 and 12, and at one NQF level above as well (level five). They target unemployed or underemployed youth and adults and others who need to update, reskill and retrain for South Africa’s changing economy.

The NQF Act of 2008 mandates Umalusi to develop and manage the qualifications for general and further education and training — that is, NQF levels one to four, which also embrace all primary and secondary schooling. And the General and Further Education and Training Quality Assurance Act of 2001 (as amended) requires that Umalusi issue certificates of learner achievement.

This means that, in setting and maintaining standards of education provision for FET colleges (among other provider sectors), Umalusi focuses on the qualifications, curricula and external assessment of learner achievement and on the quality of provision.

When it comes to the private FET college sector, that mandate presents Umalusi with a number of challenges. The first is the diversity and complexity of qualifications offered by private colleges, especially those that take the form of provider programmes, short courses and skills programmes. Adding to the complexity is that some of these colleges offer programmes that span both further education and training (at NQF level four) and higher education (at NQF level five).

Umalusi encourages diversity but is concerned about the many instances in which unsuspecting parents and learners continue to be misled into believing that certain qualifications have national currency when in fact they are not registered on the NQF — which often spells disaster for parents and children whose time and money turn out to have been wasted.

In a major effort towards a single qualifications framework for the diverse offerings in the general and further education and training levels, Umalusi has developed two new qualifications: the national independent certificate and the national senior certificate for adults. The idea is that the two qualifications will increase the pool of national qualifications for youth and adults who are looking for a variety of career-related options or further/higher education options from levels two to five of the NQF.

There is also a need to improve the quality of output in FET colleges by focusing on their teaching staff’s delivery of the curriculum. The very poor throughput rates in colleges suggest that college lecturers are not significantly improving the cognitive levels of their students.

Michael Young argued in 2006 that “the teaching staff at FET colleges should not only be familiar with the new curriculum and its pedagogic demands, but must also have clarity on the new meaning of the vocational role of colleges”.

The regulation of private FET colleges has led to a fragmented quality-assurance regime — one that has many and sometimes conflicting requirements emanating separately from the department of higher education and training, Umalusi and the many sector education and training authorities.

The legislative requirement for private colleges to be registered and accredited, subject to prosecution, has had the unintended consequence of creating a burgeoning “fly-by-night” sector that operates illegally with impunity. We must meet these challenges by means of an integrated quality-assurance approach if the post-school education and training system being ­developed is to cohere.

Chaile Makaleng is Umalusi’s senior manager (evaluation and accreditation). This is the sixth and final article in a series in the Mail & Guardian by arrangement with Umalusi, aimed at promoting greater awareness of its mandate and functions.