Skills and vocational training need rethink on qualifications

Late in 2008, Acts were passed to make substantial changes to the first post-1994 national qualifications framework. It was split into three linked frameworks, each with its own quality council: Umalusi, the Higher Education Quality Council and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations.

This signified a dramatic policy shift and the introduction of the second national qualifications framework. One effect was to reduce substantially the role of the South African Qualifications Authority to co-ordinate developments between the three councils.

The authority's power to set standards was handed to the three councils, which all seem set on operating in ways that are not only substantially different from the authority's outcomes-based qualifications, but also different from each other.

Umalusi, in general and in further education and training, works predominantly with qualifications that are broadly specified in terms of numbers and types of subjects and have a curriculum. It monitors the work of assessment bodies, which set and administer external examinations. It sees "standards" as a combined result of the quality of the curriculum, the quality and standards of the examinations used to test pupils on the curriculum and the quality of the educational institutions offering the curriculum.

Under the Higher Education Quality Council, universities continue to issue their own qualifications and design their own curriculums, possibly against broad competency statements. They are subject to emerging and still contested quality assurance procedures, but retain their autonomy.

Both Umalusi and the Higher Education Quality Council are not new. They were built on existing institutions that had reputations, established relationships, modes of operation and systems. In other words, in respect of these two bodies, the new qualifications framework seems to have moved more to a model that describes what exists, instead of one that tries to propose what should exist.

A Quality Council for Trades and Occupations was initially created under the minister of labour. But after changes in the Cabinet in 2009 the council was moved to the newly created department of higher education and training.

The launch of this council ­creates the basis for separate trades and occupational qualifications. What is not yet clear from the initial documents that are publicly available is the qualification and quality assurance model the council will implement. It remains to be seen whether a substantially new policy direction will emerge, or whether the new council, laden with associated experts and consultants in setting standards and assuring quality, will drive a reformed version of the same flawed model.

A model seems to be emerging in which the state agency (in this case, the council) has legislative and oversight responsibility, but will contract out many functions to accredited entities outside the state. In the absence of strong capacity to manage and evaluate these contracts, the risk is that a heavy focus on accreditation will be maintained without increasing the operational responsiveness and effectiveness of the system.

Vocational education and skills training
Schools have not been affected by the qualifications and quality assurance problems, although the repeated attempts to develop quality assurance and inspection systems for schools have had their own share of problems, as has the curriculum. In higher education, quality assurance has been contested and criticised, but it did not get caught in the complicated systems of the first qualifications framework.

Furthermore, with few exceptions, none of the sectors used the new qualifications generated by standards bodies. However, for learnerships and other forms of workplace-based training, the new outcomes-based qualifications registered by the qualifications framework were the only qualifications officially available.

Private and community-based providers, including organisations that wanted to do youth development work, were forced to deal with the framework. Further education and training (FET) colleges had the worst of it, because they not only worked within the department of education systems and its qualifications and examinations but also, in as far as they offered learnerships and skills programmes, were obliged to deal with sector education and training authorities (Setas) and the prescribed accreditation and decentralised assessment processes.

The end result was an elaborate system of qualifications development and quality assurance based on the development of outcomes-based qualifications and unit standards, and the accreditation of providers rated against outcomes-based qualifications and unit standards.

But this immensely complex system operated only for the small, disparate and mainly weak system of provision for workplace-based training, occupational training, continuing professional development, community development and adult education. Instead of a public policy focused on building a coherent system that strengthened the capacity of state providers and supported the capacity of private and community-based providers, the policy focus was on regulating weak provision through a complex web of quality assurance mechanisms.

In these sectors of the education and training system where provision is diverse, ranging from the public FET colleges to large private distance education providers and individuals offering packages to workplaces or enterprise-specific training centres, it is much harder to locate anything like a "community" or "professional group". Consequently, the standards as written down came to have much larger force and much more weight was accorded to them.

This diverse and heterogeneous group of organisations obviously has never had a single qualifications system. The trade-test system could perhaps be seen as the strongest centre of gravity, but this accounts for only a fraction of all vocational education.

This possibly made providers of these areas of education and training particularly vulnerable to the problems of the first qualifications framework, particularly when funding was substantially linked to the adoption of the new qualifications and, in many instances, was also linked to accreditation by one of the new quality assurance bodies, which was often also based on the use of the new qualifications.

Funding in this field includes collecting workplace levies, getting funding through official government channels such as the National Skills Fund or from the Setas. It also includes getting funding from independent donors and sometimes international donors, who wanted to comply with what was perceived to be the official qualifications and quality assurance system.

There are many other unresolved issues and ongoing problems. A point of contention is the separation of vocational education, largely under Umalusi, and occupational education, under the trades and occupation council. Another potential problem is that if very different qualifications and quality assurance models are developed for the three frameworks, the gulf between occupational and other qualifications may increase and the dream of an integrated system will be more elusive than ever.

Another important issue that must be addressed is which education, training and development programmes need to lead to qualifications. One of the reasons for the introduction of the national qualifications framework was to foster the recognition of prior learning, and the framework was designed to encompass all learning in all sectors and at all levels.

Many programmes that require considerable flexibility to address the specific needs of employers or communities have been forced into a straitjacket through the unit standard system. This makes the work of providers more difficult and also makes it less likely that they will meet the needs of their clients and communities.

The priority should be to open up the quality assurance and qualifications system, recognising that not all learning and education has to lead to qualifications or part-qualifications. This should be accompanied by strengthening the external assessment and centralised curriculum systems for programmes leading to national qualifications.

It is not over yet
It is possible that we will see more changes to the latest framework, creating version 2.1, or even more substantial changes that could produce a third framework. In the green paper released in January, the higher ­education and training department provides options for changes, some of which would entail substantial simplification of the model.

There is a strong suggestion in the green paper that the unit standards-based model should be abandoned entirely and, what is very welcome, a pronouncement that no provider should be forced to use unit standards. There are also proposals to tighten  the quality assurance of national qualifications by centralising assessments and loosening the quality assurance of education and training that does not necessarily lead to a qualification, enabling providers to offer programmes without having to be accredited and without registered assessors and moderators.

One of the ways to improve the framework is to do away with its levels and create a clear relationship between the main national qualifications — in other words, which qualification can lead to which other qualification.

If these changes are accepted, it will be far easier for community-based organisations to develop responsive programmes, including training programmes, for young people.

But there are powerful stakeholders who have vested interests in the current systems and it remains to be seen how much change the department will be able to achieve.

The green paper also suggests a substantial expansion of FET colleges and the building of new institutions for adult education, both of which would dramatically increase the educational options available to out-of-school and unemployed youths. But the paper is weak on practicalities and it remains to be seen how this is going to be put into action.

Even if problems with quality assurance and qualifications policy are resolved, many problems will remain for young people who are not in employment, education or training. Policymakers hope that vocational education reform can solve unemployment and many other socioeconomic problems, but education cannot compensate for society or address all its needs.

Employers in industry also often have unrealistic expectations, particularly in terms of expecting educational programmes to produce workplace-ready graduates with good com­muni­cation, reading and writing  skills, who are able to work in teams, take the initiative, lead and follow through and have high levels of technical expertise.

Even so, improving the nature and quality of vocational education, skills training, community development and adult education programmes will improve the situation of the young people who are not in education, training or work. But this will be difficult to do without substantially changing the qualifications and quality assurance model that has been used in these parts of the education system.

Stephanie Allais is a senior researcher in the education policy unit of the University of the Witwatersrand, leading the development of research into education and the labour market. This is an edited extract from her chapter in Shaping the Future of South Africa's Youth: Rethinking Post-school Education and Skills Training in South Africa, edited by Helene Perold, Nico Cloete and Joy Papier and published by African Minds for the Centre for Higher Education Transformation, the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit and the Further Education and Training Institute


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