/ 26 April 2012

Streamlined Setas for better skills

Streamlined Setas For Better Skills

Improvements to the effectiveness of the sector education and training authorities (Setas), recommended by the government’s green paper on post-school education and training, should be widely welcomed. But achieving public-private co-operation that is not hampered by administrative bottlenecks will remain a challenge.

The paper acknowledges the important contribution of private training providers to skills development and invites them to form alliances with public institutions to strengthen their capacity and create win-win partnerships. However, skills levy funding would only be directed to public institutions. It is up to the department to recognise that many private industry-focused institutions provide specialised programmes.

Public further education and training (FET) colleges must be strengthened and expanded to address the enormous need for post-school education and training, the paper says. The 50 public colleges are generally weak institutions.

Yet some are very strong. The higher education and training department should analyse such success stories to identify best practice that all FET colleges should adopt. What are they getting right? How are they doing it? What are the key success factors?

A multifaceted systems approach is needed to improve the quality and workplace relevance of training at these institutions and restore the market value of college qualifications that will increase the employment rate of college graduates.

The priority
For Setas, refocusing the skills planning and labour market analysis to improve the relevance of training to identified sector, cross-sector and occupational needs to be a priority. Here, too, the department should analyse best practice to be adopted by all Setas to establish uniform, streamlined processes. The long-standing diversity in Seta requirements still frustrates employers and training providers that often have to work across Setas.

The paper prioritises pivotal programmes — that is, professional, vocational, technical and academic learning programmes that include supervised practical learning in a workplace, resulting in an occupation-directed qualification. Examples are apprenticeships, learnerships, internships and skills programmes as well as professional placements, work-integrated learning and work experience — provided they lead to qualifications.

Employers must take note that Setas will be directing their funding towards these programmes through a separate, pivotal grant.

The draft levy-grant regulations contain other changes to grants. They reduce the mandatory grant paid to employers for submitting their workplace skills plans to 40% from 50% to increase the discretionary grants that Setas would pay for pivotal programmes. Employers can still access discretionary grants for “short courses”, but only if they build blocks towards a qualification or occupational award.

Employers should support the proposal that the mandatory grant for the workplace skills plans no longer be used as a “steering grant” towards Seta priorities. This will allow employers to report on all the training that is planned and implemented, not only programmes aligned to the national qualifications framework funded by the Seta or delivered by accredited providers.

These changes are intended to improve the reliability of data provided on training priorities and skills trends. Many employers treat skills plans simply as a compliance issue and often distort information to qualify for grants.

Aligning to unit standards
The paper argues against the common misconception in government departments and donor agencies that all training has to be aligned to unit standards. It recognises that many short courses that are not aligned to unit standards do, in fact, meet the needs of students, employers and other organisations.

It even accepts the limitations of unit standards that often “fragment knowledge and militate against the coherence necessary to address the mastery requirements of specific professions”.

These are welcome changes. Artificial alignment with the national qualifications framework to satisfy bureaucratic accreditation requirements overburdens students with paperwork and increases the duration and cost of training. This often results in “competence against unit standards” without building workplace competence.

The paper’s strong criticism of the burdensome quality assurance system of the Setas, which has little to do with improving the quality and relevance of training, will be widely applauded. We need an innovative approach to replace the absurd ­multilayered system with a streamlined, uniform system.

The proposals on quality assurance under the newly established Quality Council for Trades and Occupations similarly require urgent review, because they essentially repackage the current ineffective Seta system. This council will perform the same quality assurance role in relation to qualifications for trades, occupations and professions as the existing quality councils, Umalusi (for general and further education) and the Council for Higher Education.

The Quality Council for Trades and Occupations was established to promote the currency and credibility of these qualifications in the labour market, the employability of students and the productivity of the workforce. The drive to improve the system and qualifications for developing occupational competence is a welcome one.

Considering the context
But the national qualification framework’s sub-framework for trades and occupations seems to have been developed in isolation, without sufficient consideration to the broader context into which it is introduced.

The proposed occupational qualifications would be structured around three new types of unit standards that separate knowledge and theory from practical skills and include work experience as a compulsory component of at least 20% of each occupational qualification.

In practice, this is likely to fragment learning and create difficulties for students to complete all the requirements for obtaining qualifications. It would particularly ­disadvantage students from poorer communities and those outside urban areas, where there are fewer employers who are willing and able to provide work experience opportunities for students.

This would result in many partly qualified students being caught in a vicious circle: not being able to find employment because they lack a qualification, but unable to obtain an occupational qualification because they cannot complete the work-experience unit standards.

Introducing occupational qualifications with a unique structure would create major disruptions in occupation-directed training. It would escalate the cost of training, requiring the development of new qualifications, learning programmes and materials, as well as the adaptation of existing training processes and systems by employers and providers.

Employers should note that this qualification model burdens them with the co-responsibility for students gaining occupational qualifications.

It is unreasonable to expect this from employers — it is not their responsibility. Only large companies will have the resources to meet the requirements for workplace approval and the assessment of work experience that will be specified in the curriculums of occupational qualifications.

Retaining existing qualifications
Employers should support the statements in the paper in favour of retaining existing occupational qualifications that have gained ­credibility, consolidating some into more rational packages and developing new qualifications only where necessary. The paper also strongly supports retaining skills programmes that are valued in the workplace within the occupational qualifications framework. Many of these have acquired credibility and some enjoy legal recognition.

A great deal of effort and money earmarked specifically for ­developing the skills base of our country has been spent on developing ­qualifications and learning ­programmes since the establishment of the post-apartheid skills development system.

It would be an inexcusable waste of money and resources if the good work that has been done is not incorporated into the new sub-framework. Another major disruption to occupation-directed training, learnerships and apprenticeships would seriously undermine the confidence and participation of employers.

The benefits of the proposed changes to occupation-directed training should be balanced against the inevitable disruptions resulting from far-reaching changes, the anticipated resistance of employers to yet another major change in the skills development system, as well as the direct and indirect costs of development and implementation.

We should not underestimate the difficulty of getting new institutions, systems and processes fully operational — and for the proposed “national occupational qualifications” and “occupational awards” to acquire the same legitimacy among students and employers as degrees and national certificates and diplomas.

When Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande released the green paper in January, private employers were encouraged to submit comments by Monday April 30.

Suzanne Hattingh is a human resource development consultant specialising in performance improvement solutions. She is the author of Skills Planning for Improved Staff Performance and other publications on learnerships, the national qualifications framework and skills development.