One of the worst things that can happen to a student is to drop out of school between grades 10 and 12," a study this year on further education and training (FET) colleges observed.
In 2007 there were 990 794 people under the age of 24 in this category and we can safely say that many more have joined their ranks in the past five years. In 2011 alone, about 321 000 students left school either having failed matric or passing without university entrance — finding themselves with very limited options.
Putting aside sophisticated arguments about education not leading to jobs, training for a jobless economy and so on, let us simply ask this: How will our post-school institutions, in particular FET colleges, meet the aspirations of those who see education and training as a means to improving their life chances? Fourteen years after the first Further Education and Training Act of 1998 set college reforms rolling, what hurdles do public colleges still face?
The sector has certainly seen some gains, but there is an urgent need for greater stability in key parts of it. There is no doubt that the government has invested hugely in the 50 public FET colleges and their 248 campuses across South Africa since the recapitalisation grants in 2006. In spite of this, ongoing policy change in the public college sector has resulted in massive confusion for all but the most well informed about the mission, scope and desired outcomes of college education.
From a parent's or guardian's perspective, college courses occupy a grey area: neither school nor university education but not "real" workplace preparation either, apart from a few exceptions. Those who have no direct engagement with colleges display little understanding of what colleges offer, to whom and for what purpose.
Perceptions still exist that colleges provide only "technical skills" such as welding and plumbing, despite the 15 or so new national vocational certificates in educare, marketing, finance, hospitality, security and mechatronics, to name only a few of these full-time qualifications. And the old, so-called Nated programmes continue to offer shorter courses in agriculture, art, business studies and engineering, for example.
These Nated courses, the theoretical component of the old apprenticeships, lost enrolment momentum after they were due to be phased out when national vocational certificate programmes were phased in. But despite their proclaimed shortcomings — that they are "outdated", "too theoretical" and so on — they continue to attract students anxious for access to employment. In addition, colleges offer a range of Sector Education and Training Authority-funded occupational programmes tailored more specifically to industry needs.
But there are still too many students who are vague about their choice of programme or the demands it will make on them. We urgently need sustained advocacy of a clear, easily understood college mission as well as the study offerings tied to that mission.
Colleges and workplaces
In the past, colleges were the poor relations of schools and universities in terms of mainstream funding, but a lack of financial support is no longer the major stumbling block.
State funding covers 80% of the cost of official programmes, whereas 20% of the cost is for the student's account. Regarding this 20%, the state's National Student Financial Aid Scheme distributed R1.2-billion in bursaries to 165 273 students in the 2011 to 2012 financial year, according to the higher education and training department's annual report.
But the return on this investment is worryingly unclear. Since 2007, new national vocational certificates drop-out and failure rates have been high. Students' cognitive difficulties, lack of motivation and poor self-discipline account partly for poor performance, but the government has also acknowledged curriculum problems, prompting a review that has yet to initiate substantive changes.
Feedback from students also suggests that their expectations of practically oriented college education are not met by many of the college offerings. This is as much due to a theory-heavy curriculum as it is to the problem of securing sufficient workplaces willing to offer students workplace exposure.
To take only one contrasting example, in Germany about 500 000 businesses voluntarily offer students workplace training every year, simply because they believe that this ensures them a supply of well-trained employees in the future.
We need to do whatever it takes to get employers to open their doors to FET colleges so that our students are able to practise their knowledge and skills in real workplaces.
Student support, both academic and psychosocial, has emerged as a major cost in FET college delivery, especially in the first year, yet little provision for this is made in college funding. Many of the school dropouts attending colleges manifest low self-esteem, behavioural problems, learning difficulties, substance abuse and so on.
How do colleges deal with the psychosocial problems that make it hard for these students to achieve? Non-profit agencies that could potentially assist have to raise donor funding to carry out much-needed interventions. Furthermore, although advancements have been made in establishing student learning centres, computer facilities and workshops through infrastructure funding, hostel facilities have not improved and are often bleak and depressing spaces.
Few students who have to attend a campus far from home can afford the up to R40 000 a year for hostel accommodation, which the financial aid scheme appears not to cover. Colleges also do not seem to tap into the sporting or cultural talents of their students, for example in organised sports, clubs or other extramurals. For younger students who may benefit from a sense of belonging in a large college community, this is a serious deprivation. Universities with long experience of student housing and other student initiatives, including peer mentoring, organised sport and recreation, could offer assistance to colleges that require it.
FET colleges must be supported to make college campuses and hostels attractive and welcoming spaces that recognise the needs and talents of their students. Academic and psychosocial support systems are equally important for success.
This is the first of Dr Joy Papier's two-part assessment of progress in FET policy and practice to date. She is director of the FET Institute of the University of the Western Cape and writes in her personal capacity