Blade defends colleges against complaints from private sector

Higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande has chastised private sector companies for “second-guessing” the output of public technical colleges.

“As far I’m concerned, I’m having less and less patience for employers who are saying ‘but your colleges are not producing what we need’. The question I often ask them [is] ‘where are you to ensure that the colleges are offering something closer to what you need?’.”

“This thing of second-guessing each other and complaining about each other must just simply come to end. We have said to employers come and be on the councils of the colleges, including on the academic boards, so that there is no second-guessing of each other.”

Speaking at his department’s inaugural conference on the colleges, formerly known as further education and training (FET) and now called technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutions, Nzimande was responding to the widely held belief that the colleges are underperforming and producing poor quality skills – and which are useless to industry.

The conference taking place in Midrand, Gauteng on Tuesday and Wednesday is themed “Together forging a vibrant TVET system in South Africa”. In attendance are officials (including principals) of the 50 public colleges and local and international vocational education experts.

As it’s on a crusade to model the colleges as institutions of choice – and ease the pressure on universities, the government needs private sector to open up apprenticeship and full employment opportunities for college graduates. The government seeks to increase enrolment at the institutions to 1.25-million by 2030, which currently stood at 670 455 in 2013 – up from 358 393 in 2010.

TVET colleges
Nzimande stressed that the colleges were now called TVET and not FET. “This is much more than a name change. In fact it signals the beginning of a whole new era for the colleges. This is an important moment in the development of the country’s post-school and training system.

“In the rest of the world, TVET is a well-known concept. The name change therefore also aligns us with international practice. It also signals the importance of integrating formal education with practical training.”

In his attempt to prove wrong those critical of the performance and output of the colleges, Nzimande argued the institutions have improved considerably since he took over the portfolio in 2009.

“I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made, despite the challenges that we have. The sector is simply not the same as it was five years ago. In some areas, we’ve made significant strides. As a department we’ve put mechanisms and processes in place … Whilst the colleges have inevitably been through a difficult period, I feel I’m starting to get a sense that there’s some measure of stabilsation.”

He said the “most significant” improvements for him are the “advances” in pass rates and access. “The National Student Financial Aid Scheme is now benefitting 233 958 students [through bursaries at the colleges] as we speak.

“Although certification rates are still too low, the national certificate vocational (NCV) programme had an average rate of 9% pass rate in 2009, in 2013 the average certification rate increased to 33%.”

The NCV is equivalent to the matric certificate, whose 2013 pass rate jumped to 78.2%. The colleges’ diploma level engineering national pass was now 60%, said Nzimande.

“We hope the media will reflect this, even if they are critical of us, not only focusing on the shenanigans happening in Parliament. Focus on real work here that we’re doing,” said Nzimande.

Burying FET
He also turned the spotlight on principals whose colleges do not have partnerships with organisations. “To our principals: if your college has absolutely no relationship with an employer, you must know you’re not running a TVET college, you’re running an old FET college … which we have come to bury now.

“There’s absolutely no reason, I always argue this that even in the deepest of the rural areas there is a police station [that needs to be] fixed. We must get our motor mechanics students to be attached to a police station in the rural areas to have workplace training.

“This calls for commitment, creativity and innovation,” Nzimande said. He hinted at a launch “awards of innovation in the TVET sector [to] reward those who think creatively, so that we build a college system that we can all be proud of”.

“Aligning our colleges to a world of work is no longer negotiable. Crucially, this means colleges and employers collaborating for the prosperity of individual citizens as well as the economy at large. Industry must be involved in every aspect of life at a TVET college.”

Abusing bursaries
Students he said are abusing college bursaries also did not escape Nzimande’s tongue lashing. “Our communities will have to stand up for this because some of our students are turning our colleges and the assistance we’re giving them into a social grant,” he said. 

“They come in the beginning on the month to collect money for accommodation and money for transport and they disappear for the rest of the month. This is not social grant money, it’s meant for skills development.

“I want the principals to be tough on this. I know some students are going to say ‘ja, here’s the minister now talking tough’. Yes, I’m talking tough. I’m giving the principals the mandate – be tough on attendance. It’s non-negotiable.”

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Bongani Nkosi
Bongani is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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