/ 4 October 2013

Turning around the FET colleges

Graphic: John McCann
Graphic: John McCann

Improving the quality of teaching and learning at further education and training (FET) colleges is one of the government's priorities. 

The department of higher education and training is addressing the challenges that have historically plagued this sector by implementing its turnaround strategy, which includes, as one of its core principles, the responsibility for the management of FET colleges is to be migrated from a provincial government level to national government. 

This will assist in maintaining an environment of order and focus by ensuring that the colleges comply with changes in legislation and policies concerning the post-school education and training landscape and become institutions of choice with 2.5-million youth enrolled in them by 2030.

It is commonly misunderstood that the minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, took responsibility for the management of FET colleges from the date the president established his department in 2009 — a misunderstanding evident in some student perceptions quoted in a recent Mail & Guardian news story ("Blade leaves FET graduates in the lurch", September 20).

In fact, the responsibility for these colleges remained with provinces until the FET Amendment Act came into effect with its changes to the FET Colleges Act. 

The first phase was triggered by a Government Gazette general notice on May 11 2012. On March 28 this year, also in a Government Gazette notice, the minister determined the date from which college principals and deputy principals were to report to the minister. Before these dates the minister did not have a direct statutory responsibility. Instead, the members of the executive council and provincial heads of the education departments exercised this. 

It should be noted that the department is responsible for the funding of the operational expenditure directly relating to FET colleges, whereas provincial education departments manage the funds allocated for personnel through conditional grants.

It is envisaged that the total budget for FET colleges will shift to the national department once the Division of Revenue Act makes provision for this in the first quarter of 2014.

A contentious issue that has received considerable media attention has been the certification of national certificate (vocational) students. The department wishes to contextualise the historical background to this problem and highlight the measures it has put in place to address this challenge. 

In terms of the General Further Education and Training Qualifications Act of 2001, the department of higher education is the examining body for the FET sector and Umalusi is the quality assurance and certification body. 

Following the introduction of "report 191 national accredited technical diploma" programmes in 1998, the council of education ministers resolved that the FET college examination function should become a national competency. In 2007, the then department of education introduced a new qualification in the form of the national certificate (vocational), which would also be assessed and certified at a national level.

Unlike the traditional matric exam, which occurs at the end of an academic year, exams for FET colleges are conducted seven times a year and twice a year for adult education and training, with candidates being assessed and certificated in each of these nine exam cycles.

In order to fulfil the responsibilities inherent in being the examining body, the department of higher education relies on information technology services from the State Information Technology Agency to operationalise the national examinations processes of FET colleges. This includes the registration of candidates for exams, issuing of results and certification of candidates. 

Before the establishment of the department in 2009, certification challenges had already existed in the issuing of national certificate (vocational) certificates, particularly those on levels two, three and four of the National Qualifications Framework. It should be noted that the certification challenge is of a technical nature, because the existing FET examination system was initially developed by the technology agency to serve the older technical diploma programmes, and only later on adapted to cater for the new national certificate (vocational) qualification introduced in 2007. 

The assessing and certification of these two qualifications on the same information technology (IT) platform resulted in certification problems for the national certificate qualification. 

The department is in the process of procuring an enterprise-scale business IT system and services to develop, maintain and support a new modernised FET college examination system capable of managing the assessment and certification of the national certificate (vocational), national accredited technical diploma, and adult education and training examinations.

We have put measures in place to address the certification backlog and have made considerable strides in this regard. To date 322 214 national certificate (vocational) levels two to four certificates have been issued, and 38 199 certificates are still to be issued. This figure can be broken down as follows:

• 16 602 certificates were initially not issued because public FET colleges owed certification fees to Umalusi. The department has successfully intervened and ensured that Umalusi lifts the block on public FET college certificates, which are now being processed for release;

• 3 491 certificates have not been issued by Umalusi because of outstanding certification fees owed by private FET colleges. The department has contacted these institutions and is following up to facilitate the settlement of outstanding debt and release of the certificates; and

• 18 106 certificates have not been processed due to data anomalies in the candidate's data sets. This is the actual backlog. The department is in constant engagement with the agency to address these anomalies. The agency is also in the process of sourcing additional capacity to resolve this matter.

The department has always responded positively to potential employers and education and training institutions in relation to the authentication of results enquiries, and is tirelessly working to resolve the certification challenges and ensure that recipients' career prospects are not jeopardised. 

We wish to reassure parents, national certificate students, FET colleges and the public that this matter is receiving our focused attention and is being prioritised at all levels in the department to ensure that the backlog is resolved within the shortest possible time without compromising the integrity of the FET examination process and career prospects of students.

All 322 214 certificates have been distributed to examination centres, and in cases where no certificates were issued, statements of results serving as evidence of a student's academic achievement were issued. 

National certificate (vocational) students are encouraged to contact the examination centre directly and, where necessary, the department at [email protected] or [email protected] or phone 0800 87 2222 to check on the status of their certificates. 

Gwebinkundla Qonde is director general in the department of higher education and training