Against a chilling backdrop of millions of 15- to 24-year-olds who are not in employment, education or training – the so called "neets" – Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande unveiled an ambitious new multiyear plan to address this problem, among the many others school leavers face.
Launching his white paper on post-school education and training in Pretoria on Thursday, Nzimande said there are more than 3.4-million "neets" countrywide.
But the post-school education and training system "does not offer sufficient places to the many people seeking access to education", he said, and "expansion is needed".
The white paper amounts to "a strategy [that] is required to pull [the "neets"] out of the doldrums of poverty and misery".
Nzimande announced that a new type of institution, called community colleges, would be established to cater for South Africans who never attended school and therefore could not apply to study at colleges or universities. They would also enrol youth and adults who preferred the new programmes to those at further education and training (FET) colleges.
"We are not only interested in those who got seven As at school," he said. "[There must not be] a dustbin where we throw away living human beings … [We are not only interested in] those who went to school but also those who never went to school but who want to acquire a skill."
'Coherent and differentiated'
South Africa needs a "single, coherent, differentiated, highly articulated, diverse post-school system", he said. "This is what we hope to achieve through this white paper."
Nzimande's special adviser, John Pampalis, said at the launch that the vision of this white paper was the same as the one its predecessor, the January 2012 green paper, expressed. Both offer "a vision of a single, integrated post-school system with a focus on collaboration between institutions".
This means that "[institutions need to] work together for the benefit of the system as a whole", Pampalis said. The green paper focused on problems but the white paper "is more focused on solutions".
In addition to addressing the plight of "neets", the white paper's targets include expanding participation in universities from about 900 000 students currently to 1.6-million enrolments by 2030.
FET colleges will undergo a name change, Nzimande said: they will be known as "technical and vocational education and training" (TVET) colleges. The white paper envisages expanding enrolments at these colleges from about 500 000 currently to 2.5-million by 2030.
Pampalis said: "The [new] community colleges are very important … We know that TVET colleges are not attractive to [all] young people. They will only be attractive if they are seen as a pathway to jobs. A lot of money is going [towards] improving quality and infrastructure at them. [We want] students to get an academic, theoretical and practical education at TVET colleges."
For Ahmed Essop, chief executive officer of the Council on Higher Education, "the most important thing is if we can give effect to the vision in the white paper – which is to provide access to meaningful opportunities in the post-school system and help address the problem of severe pressure on universities.
"There is this pressure because young people see universities as their only meaningful opportunity for success. We need them to see FET colleges like that."
Ahmed Bawa, vice-chancellor of Durban University of Technology, expressed "confidence" in the white paper's "enormous potential to address problems with access and success".
"We have to have a plan to address problems with access," he said. His university received 76 000 applications this year – "but there are only 7 000 places".
"The question is: will the policy white paper say to young people that they have an opportunity to study and acquire skills?" Bawa said.
Nadya Bhagwan, a member of the committee that drafted the white paper, said: "Having the white paper as policy is a good start but it is going to take us a long time to get where we want to be. The challenges are so huge in terms of numbers in the system."