/ 4 November 2011

State ‘freezes out’ private skills providers

Illogical hurdles have been placed in the way of experienced providers of occupational training.

Everyone agrees that skills training is indispensable in South Africa. But the government department that is supposed to promote training creates obstacles that are virtually impossible to overcome, leaving private providers of occupational qualifications caught between a rock and a hard place.

The National Qualifications Framework Act defines a “training provider” as a provider of “occupational learning programmes” accredited in terms of the Skills Development Act. The training providers I am referring to are not fly-by-night operators and fraudsters, but respected providers who are properly accredited and have been training people in much-needed skills for many years.

Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande and his department place much emphasis on public providers for skills training. There is still room for private providers, they say, but skills education training authorities (Setas) are requested to give preference to public providers.

Private providers cost the government, and therefore the taxpayer, not a cent. On the contrary, they pay millions of rands in tax and provide jobs for thousands of people. In addition, they train and educate millions of learners.

Massive challenges
But they face massive challenges in getting accredited because of the restrictive and bureaucratic requirements of 21 different Setas. Added to this are the stipulations of accreditation with a quality council and registration with the department of higher education and training. It is not the legislation in itself that is the problem, rather it is poor implementation and the government’s lack of understanding of the world of training.

Gill Connellan, the chairwoman of the Association for Skills Development Facilitation in South Africa, explains on the Skills Universe website how the Swiss regularly achieve excellence at the annual World Skills event: “There is an acknowledgement that the development of vocational excellence requires business for practice, private providers for niche and specific vocational and other skills and public-sector education for embedded knowledge and for further education that is formalised.”

Merely getting registered with the higher education and training department, a constitutional requirement, poses one of the biggest obstacles for private providers. To register with the department, private providers have to be accredited first. That was supposed to be done by the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations, but providers have now been referred back to the Setas for accreditation until September 2012.

The problem is that the department itself does not recognise Seta accreditation, even though the Setas fall under its jurisdiction. So providers still have to be accredited by either the Council on Higher Education (CHE) or Umalusi, whose stamps of approval the department does recognise.

This means providers are forced to go through a kind of two-phase accreditation process: one with a Seta to recognise their qualifications and then with the CHE or Umalusi for registration purposes. To be accredited by the CHE means that skills-development providers must comply with criteria designed for universities. They must offer qualifications registered on the National Qualifications Framework.

In sum
In sum: clients expect skills-training providers to offer work-related occupational training, but these providers are not allowed to offer such training unless the qualifications are registered as academic higher-education ones.

At this stage, the Occupational Qualifications Framework has not been registered. Training providers cannot be accredited with the CHE, which does not recognise occupational-skills programmes. This means, in turn, that they cannot be registered with the department and so may not offer full qualifications.

Umalusi, the general and further education and training (FET) quality assurance council, does recognise Seta accreditation for FET purposes. This makes it possible for training providers on that level to register on the FET band of the National Qualifications Framework (up to grade 12 level).

One solution to the problem of registration for occupational training providers could be that Umalusi accredits post-school occupational qualifications (on the National Qualifications Framework’s levels five and higher). Because Umalusi accepts Seta accreditation, training providers on all levels would then be able to register with the department.

Of course, the long-term solution is to get the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations functional as soon as possible. However, I understand the council was not allocated a budget this year, so it is not able to fulfil its mandate. It is time for the minister to intervene in this intolerable delay, which disadvantages providers and learners alike.

My colleagues and I have been trying to persuade the government to see reason for years. Yet, contrary to all common sense, the department and the CHE do not see the absurdity of expecting training providers to pretend to be universities when all they want is to do is provide skills training in classrooms, factories and workshops. All this is not only causing a bottleneck in the training system, it is forcing providers out of the system.

The consequences include:

  • Limiting training opportunities for learners;
  • Closing down businesses, large and small, that provide skills training;
  • Destroying the jobs of providers’ staff;
  • Limiting the potential pool of future skilled workers; and
  • Losing out on tax that would have been paid by the providers.

Without private providers, the training achieved by the skills system in the past 10 years would not have been possible. Private providers will continue to support skills development as much as they are allowed to. But the public provider system remains inefficient with very low pass rates. As long as it is given preference by government policy, there will be no change.

Marietta van Rooyen is executive chairwoman of Assessment College Holdings and a member of the South African Board of People Practices. She writes in her own capacity.