Access to education is one of the human rights most dear to black people in post-apartheid South Africa. They have emerged battered from a devastating history of colonial education and apartheidâ€™s Bantu education policy, which aimed to disempower them.
The white minority received better education and training, and acquired the requisite skills to compete in a job market that was confined to themselves.
It is understandable why many black South Africans are so passionate about their right to education and why they see universities as a symbol of the precious education that was denied them for so long.
But this may be misguided and something that disempowers rather than empowers them.
There has been little rigorous debate about higher education institutions that are not universities, and the issue of decolonisation has not touched on the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. These are often wrongly labelled as â€œalternativeâ€ institutions when they should be recognised as even more critical than universities in addressing the skills needed by a developing economy.
In a study in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Developmentâ€™s (OECD) Economic Outlook 2016, there were alarming findings about recent labour market trends in South Africa. The study revealed a growth in the numbers of young people who are neither employed nor in education or training (so-called neets) and they are in danger of being permanently left out of the labour market.
Research suggests there were 3.2-million youths (aged between 15 and 24) who were not in education, employment or training in 2011, and the latest Quarterly Labour Force Survey shows that 32.4% youths remain neets. The situation is so serious that more than one in five young people are low-skilled neets, according to the 2016 OECD study.
These statistics paint a bleak picture of access to education, and the limited success of expanding it, at all levels, and particularly in higher education. Furthermore, there is a skills mismatch that is not being addressed.
The government has acknow-ledged that the TVET colleges are central to providing the youth and unemployed with skills. The National Development Plan (NDP) highlights its intention to support and expand the skills employment sector to lift many young South Africans out of poverty.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, opinions differed on which form of education was more important or relevant. For instance, in the United States, two leaders emerged with opposite ideas. Booker T Washington backed the philosophy of self-help education and WEB du Bois advocated a college education in the liberal arts. In South Africa, in line with Washingtonâ€™s philosophy, Langalibalele Dube opened a school for skills and self-help — the Ohlange Institute, which would offer young black people technical training, something the architects of apartheid would seek to prove was not possible.
Apartheid leader HF Verwoerd referred to black people as â€œthe hewers of wood and drawers of waterâ€, meaning black people were only good for physical labour and not cognitive employment, and his beliefs became the policy that underpinned Bantu education in the 1950s.
These were the conditions under which our parents grew up, so who can blame them for wanting us to attend university? In a sense, it might seem to our parents, aside from their concerns about the quality of TVET education, that the colleges are a validation of Verwoerdâ€™s views.
We could look to Germany for a way out of this bleak situation. That country has come up with a successful training and career model, the vocational education and training (VET) system, which is highly regarded and widely adopted by the youth.
VET entails a dual vocational training system, with both full-time vocational schools and universities of the applied sciences. This model combines theory with on-the-job training — young people attend classes while gaining valuable work experience.
What sets Germany apart from South Africa is that the enrolments for vocational qualifications are so high that 349 programmes are offered in dual VETs. This is not surprising as the qualifications obtained in the VET colleges offer many career options and are flexible enough to be adapted to a continuously changing labour market.
This was one of the calls of protesting TVET students early this year. They demanded institutions capable of delivering relevant curriculums and knowledge, and for adequate funding for tuition.
Again, the German model could be useful for South Africa: the VETS are funded both publicly and privately.
Perhaps the most important lesson for South Africa is that, if most our countryâ€™s workforce received their qualifications in TVET colleges, the country would become closer to the NDP dream of industrialisation.
The South African National Skills Development Strategy (NSDS) was established in terms of the Skills Development Act of 1998 and was made up of representatives from business, labour, government and other bodies that reflected community interests.
The NSDS III entailed the integration of higher and further education and skills development in the single department of higher education and training, and serves to promote partnerships between employers, public education institutions (TVET colleges, universities and universities of technology), private training providers and the sector education and training authorities. In short, it seeks to promote skills training that is responsive to the need for a more productive economy and greater social equity. But to do so it needs to address issues overlooked in the current debates about education.
The decolonisation of the higher education sector must include a transformation of our concept of education, a mindshift to embrace skills institutions such as the TVET colleges. The low priority they are accorded and the extent to which they are seen as an â€œalternativeâ€ to education are contributing to the crisis facing higher education. The belief that there are forms of learning that are considered more important, relevant and respectable than others is not going to lift South Africans out of poverty.
Ironically, the TVET colleges are already meeting one of the calls of university students for â€œfree, quality, decolonised educationâ€. Education is practically free at all public TVET colleges, which absorb 80% of all TVET students.
One could say the National Financial Aid Scheme is making big strides in this regard.
The most important outcome of vocational education is that it should increase studentsâ€™ chances of getting a job or of being self-sustaining entrepreneurs. TVET colleges should be able to produce skilled students who play a role in economic expansion and progressive growth.
But the reality is that these TVET institutions do not always have the resources to offer quality technical and vocational training, and it is up to government to change this. Support from industry and the private sector is also badly needed.
Ideally, employers should have no difficulty in recruiting skilled labour, so the focus, led by the government and endorsed by the youth, needs to change from being on large enrolments at universities to a more diverse higher education that encompasses the TVET colleges. The economy could do with fewer BA graduates and more skilled and qualified electricians, mechanics and plumbers.
Parents, students and pupils need to appreciate that vocational skills are central to creating jobs, entrepreneurship and an inclusive economy for all.
The government needs to find creative ways of marketing the TVET colleges to give them more prestige and make them more appealing to school-leavers.
The anger we share about the status quo could also be channelled into driving the youth to strive for excellence not only through universities but also by following the TVET path. Perhaps this could be the answer for radical economic transformation.