Blade's green paper cuts to the education core

The timing was all, but will it be enough? Blade Nzimande's exquisitely chosen moment for releasing his green paper on post-school education and training was Thursday—two days after scenes at the University of Johannesburg (UJ) left shocked South Africans urgently wanting both to understand them and to know that officialdom had grasped the core reasons for the disaster and sympathised with the desperation that ignited it.

At first glance, the clear-sighted and wide-ranging green paper appears to meet both needs. Late in its 100 pages it delivers perhaps the most succinct expression of the UJ tragedy's deepest sources: post-school "education and training opportunities ... are too limited to meet either the needs of society and the economy or the expectations of young people and their parents". These opportunities must be expanded "very significantly".

But, by placing the economy before the more urgent reality of youthful and parental expectations, even these bracingly direct sentiments create misgivings that the green paper as a whole generates as well. After all, Tuesday's death was of a mother accompanying her son to try to ensure him a university place.

There were similar misgivings earlier in the week when Nzimande's response in the immediate wake of the scenes at UJ was to propose a central admissions office and a ban on walk-in applications.

The causes lie deep There is merit in these proposals—both are norms in several other countries. But they are also managerial-administrative solutions to problems whose causes lie far deeper than these remedies would suggest, however desirable they might be.

Therein lies the equivocal achievement of this green paper, now open for public comment until April 30. On the one hand, it is irreproachably and unflinchingly thorough in its identification of the myriad ways in which "post-school education and training is inadequate in quantity, diversity and ... quality".

On the other hand, it operates at a worryingly cool distance from the human consequences of the "shortcomings" it recognises. This is partly a feature of the genre: such papers have to set often distant targets—in this case, 20 years from now. But it is also the product of some blurring in the paper when the extremities of immediate desperation that failed policies have caused come into view.

Anchoring the green paper is this central, irreproachable recognition: "Approximately three million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 are not accommodated in either the education and training system or the labour market. This is an appalling waste of human potential and a potential source of serious social instability."

The writers were not to know what specific signs of "social instability" would erupt two days before they released their document, of course. But this recognition of the plight faced by three million young people generates the paper's most fundamental and most sweeping proposal and also most clearly displays both its strengths and its limitations.

Bold enrolment proposals By far the greatest growth in post-school opportunities must be in enrolments at further education and training (FET) colleges, the paper says. This proposal is not new, but its extent is striking and bold: college enrolments must grow tenfold in 20 years—from 400 000 now to four million.

By contrast, universities should grow to merely 1.5-million in the same period from their current 900 000 enrolments.

All this makes perfect sense—it is the "inverted skills pyramid" problem restated. But, if policies that have been aimed for years at reversing the preponderance of university over college enrolments had been even modestly successful so far, this week's UJ scenes would likely never have occurred: colleges, and other components of the skills sector such as learnerships and apprenticeships, would already have been sufficiently prepared and attractive enough to have met many more of the popular expectations that are so repeatedly frustrated by the post-school system.

In other words, thorough though the document is on why the college sector is so weak, it does not address the central problem of public perception directly—that they are still seen as second-rate, fall-back options.

Even so, the paper does have some new ideas, ones that do suggest its responsiveness to the immediate needs of those who will never get into a university. The best of these ideas follows its admission that the "public and private provision of adult education is very weak". We need new "community education and training centres" for out-of-school youth and adults—these would absorb the hopelessly under-resourced public adult learning centres.

But, as with the green paper's proposals on colleges, is this enough both in scope and timing to avert the massive storm of powerful but unsatisfied people's expectations that thundered at UJ this week?

Bleak or better futures?
The post-school education and training system "continues to produce and reproduce gender, class, racial and other inequalities with regard to access to educational opportunities and success", the green paper says. If "major changes" are not introduced, large numbers of young people "face a very bleak future". The chief considerations of the paper include:

  • Expansion in all post-school institutional types—FET colleges, universities, adult-education facilities and workplace-based training;

  • FET college enrolments rising from 400 000 to four million in
    20 years;

  • Universities up from 900 000 to 1.5-million in the same period;
     
  • Continued commitment "to progressively introduce free education for the poor up to and including undergraduate level";

  • Career guidance available to all young people;

  • Recategorising universities yet again to "be avoided" but there should be a "continuum of institutions, ranging from specialised, research-intensive universities to largely undergraduate institutions";

  • New sites of delivery for teacher education;

  • Simplifying the regulatory system (of legislation and statutory bodies)—it is "complex and difficult to understand";

  • Simplifying the national qualifications framework — "not all training has to necessarily adhere to specified outcomes that are registered on" the framework;

  • Building articulation between educational institutions and the labour market "so that students can get practical experience in real workplaces and find jobs when they complete their studies"; and

  • Establishing a national vocational institute to support FET
    colleges and Setas.
David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane

David Macfarlane is currently the Mail & Guardian's education editor. He obtained an honours degree in English literature, a fairly unpopular choice among those who'd advised him to study something that would give him a real career and a pension plan. David joined the M&G in the late 1990s. There, the publication's youth – which was nearly everyone except him – also tried to further his education. Since April 2010, he's participated in the largest expansion of education coverage the M&G Media has ever undertaken. He says he's "soon" going on "real annual leave", which will entail "switching off this smart phone the M&G youth told me I needed".   Read more from David Macfarlane

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