Green paper 'not merely meeting the needs of business'

Sherri Hamilton and Britt Baatjes's article last week on the green paper on post-school education and training ("Blade's paper fails to make the cut", Mail & Guardian, January 20) makes a useful contribution to the discussion on the nature of a post-school system for South Africa.

Many of their arguments are both helpful and constructive and deserve serious attention when public comments are considered and a white paper is drafted. These include their proposals regarding the training of further education and training college lecturers and the idea of establishing provincial institutes of vocational and continuing education as well as strengthening adult education, the humanities and the study of African languages in higher education.

These are not at all incompatible with the green paper. Indeed the last three are addressed in the green paper and are the subject of important initiatives by the department of higher education and training.
However, the core of the argument made by Hamilton and Baatjes lies elsewhere.

They claim that "the [green] paper signals [Blade] Nzimande's adherence to human capital theory, as does his national skills development strategy, which focuses on skilling people for employment and to the benefit of business and industry". This line of argument is encapsulated in their last, disapproving sentence: "Change should be based on human need and the needs of our society, not business."

If it were the case that the views in the green paper were based on human capital theory, I would agree with the criticism. However, to equate a focus on skills development for the labour market with human capital theory is a fallacy.

Developing the scarce skills needed by our economy, and extending this type of training to previously disadvantaged groups, should not be equated with simply trying to meet the needs of the business. Rather, it is meeting the needs of the South African economy which we all rely on to provide the resources necessary for ending poverty and unemployment. In addition to big business, all employers—including the state, state-owned enterprises, the co-operative and non-governmental organisation sectors and small business—will benefit from a more skilled workforce. Even more importantly, those who develop their abilities and become skilled workers
will benefit.

High wage economy
Creating a high-wage economy depends, above all, on a skilled workforce rather than South Africa's 140-year-old industrial model of a small professional and managerial elite supervising a mass of cheap, unskilled labour. For many decades the apartheid government and its predecessors prevented blacks from acquiring skills in the trades and most professions; this has left a legacy of racially skewed skills distribution. Patriarchal social relations did much the same with regard to gender.

The redress of these injustices by creating a skilled workforce is one of the priorities of the higher education department. Elevating "training for the needs of society", without simultaneously addressing the skills distortions of the apartheid division of labour, essentially translates into the maintenance and reproduction of the apartheid labour market.

Hamilton and Baatjes do, indirectly, raise an important question regarding what, if anything, can be done to improve education and training in what they call "the current neoliberal framework". I must agree that a market-driven, neoliberal policy framework cannot be conducive to expanding education and training or improving its quality. However, I believe that the authors' appreciation of political and economic realities is a little blunt.

The green paper needs to be seen in the context of attempts to shift South Africa on to a more developmental growth path and to give the state a key role in driving social development in a way that promotes job creation and greater equality. In addition, one should not lose sight of the green paper's vision to expand undergraduate and postgraduate education, to expand the quality and quantity of teaching and research and to reverse the marginalisation of the humanities and social sciences.

As the green paper points out, there has been some progress already. Since the department was established less than three years ago, the government has managed to significantly increase the resources to expand student access to post-school education and training.

This has taken place especially through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. Funds made available through the scheme more than doubled between 2008 and 2011 to R6-billion and are expected to continue growing. In addition, funds from the Sector Education and Training Authorities and the National Skills Fund increasingly supplement the resources available to public education institutions.

Clearly the picture of the green paper as primarily a promotion of technicist training geared to meet the needs of business at the expense of "human needs and the needs of our society" is a caricature.

John Pampallis is special adviser to the minister of higher education and training

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