/ 30 January 2020

Purpose, profit and progress

Northlink Colleges, Cape Town Campuses.
File photo by Paul Botes/M&G

For learners negotiating their next step after high school, the options for education and experience can seem overwhelming — and often inaccessible — but a useful resource exists for those students whose interest lies in a particular industry. Technical and Vocational Education Training (TVET) colleges aim to prepare students for work in a specific field, providing the practical knowledge and skills that make for an easy transition into the working world. For those about to enter a crowded job market, could this be the solution to acquiring those sought-after skills. 

What is TVET? 

Simply put, Technical and Vocational Education Training colleges aim to equip learners with skills that are directly applicable to the workplace — enabling them to learn trades that often result directly in obtaining income. While traditional higher education tends to linger on the theoretical aspects of any given subject, TVETs take a more direct approach and focus on imparting the knowledge necessary to participate in the economy. 

TVETs in their current form are a relatively new innovation, in existence for less than a decade, but they were around 30 years in the making. In 1989, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) created a mandate stating that vocational training should “contribute to the safeguarding of peace and friendly understanding among nations”, and with that goal in mind, the International Project on Technical and Vocational Education was established in 1992. Locally, the FET Act of 1998 was followed by the establishment of The South African Institute for Vocational and Continuous Education and Training (SAIVCET), and the term Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) was introduced in 1999 at the Unesco Second International Congress on Technical and Vocational Education in Seoul, South Korea. In 2012, public FET colleges in SA were redefined as TVETs, with private TVETs following suit in 2014. 

Today, there are 50 accredited public TVET Colleges in South Africa, operating on more than 300 campuses across the country. Public TVET Colleges are subsidised by the state, receiving approximately R8-billion in government support annually. 

The accessible option 

The factor that makes TVET study an accessible alternative to other forms of study is its relatively low barrier to entry: many TVET courses require only a grade nine pass in order to apply. This makes vocational study an excellent alternative for those who’ve had to drop out of high school for any number of the reasons that are prevalent in South Africa, from a lack of funds to the need to care for younger siblings. For those who simply aren’t inclined towards “book learning” that prioritises theory over practice, SET and TVET colleges offer a mode of study that might allow for meaningful work in spheres that recognise that ability and intelligence aren’t as closely tied to academic achievement as we may have been conditioned to believe. Considering that there is a slow but certain shift to prioritising ability over qualification when it comes to employment — consider Google’s move to scrap the requirement of a university degree for job candidates — the future looks brighter for those whose talents haven’t always fitted into our education system’s relatively narrow definition of success. 

Where to for TVET?

The vocational training system is far from flawless. Louise Terblanche has published useful and constructive criticism in her paper titled “Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges in South Africa: A Framework for Leading Curriculum Change”. Her exploration of the opinions of those working within the system suggest a need for stronger partnerships with academia — for those who wish to study further after their TVET training, and who show the potential to do so — and “the need for stronger industry involvement in the TVET curriculum review process to enhance responsiveness to industry needs and requirements”. She explores TVET training in countries such as Germany and presents comparisons that might allow South Africa’s system to better serve its students. Terblanche’s paper demonstrates just how much more vocational training could have to offer its learners if a few key components were added and adjusted, and lays out suggestions for these solutions. 

Money matters 

With the job market changing faster than ever before, it’s a tricky task to grapple with the evolving needs of any specific industry — but it’s also essential if TVETs are to adequately prepare their graduates for employment. Terblanche finds that a close connection to real-world industry environments is somewhat lacking. Anecdotal evidence from her survey respondents from within the TVET system suggests that a clearer link could be facilitated by ensuring that lecturers have experience in the real-world application of the skills that they teach, rather than just a theoretical understanding. For industries in which technology plays a key role, this requirement becomes even more pressing, so adapting and updating the curriculum is becoming necessary.

Again looking to the tech world and startup culture, it might be useful to consider the “skill stack” concept currently beloved of LinkedIn articles and Medium posts: the idea of acquiring skills one by one, according to specific needs, aptitudes and interests, and combining them with natural talents and soft skills. These purposefully acquired skills — the thinking goes — become what sets an individual apart in a crowded market. One of the clearly appealing aspects of this idea is that the process has no time limit and no rigid, prescribed order. It makes perfect sense to take a set of qualifications into the workplace, whether as an entrepreneur or an employee, then use practical experience to determine which skills are lacking from your stack and should be sought and acquired. After all, even a cutting-edge education can quickly become outdated if industry needs evolve rapidly during an employee’s first few years in the workplace, and additional expertise and experience seldom goes amiss in setting a candidate apart from other applicants in a crowded job market. 

Finding fulfillment

It’s understandable, given South Africa’s dire unemployment statistics, that employment is first in the minds of many learners. But for young job seekers, there’s also a drive towards finding fulfilment and purpose through work — and an understanding that income needn’t be sacrificed in order to achieve a feeling of usefulness and “doing good” at work. Linked to this is the growing understanding that purposeful employment need not be the preserve of those working in theoretical fields or the lucky few whose jobs centre around creativity. Those learning a trade are in luck: proficiency in subjects offered at SET and TVET institutions allows graduates to address some of society’s biggest problems, from land reform and environmentalism through agricultural work to passing on a love of learning through education. Also available are courses on arts and culture, business, hospitality, commerce, engineering, manufacturing and technology, construction and security.


And what of those with little interest in entering the job market? While TVET colleges are designed to prepare learners for the workplace, they’re not necessarily being prepared for employment. It’s easy to see why TVET subjects and training might be ideal for self-employment: with skills that are needed by members of the public regardless of passing trends or socioeconomic changes, graduates are equipped to convert their abilities to earnings without the level of business acumen required to start a business from the top down. TVET training provides the solid base on which would-be entrepreneurs can begin to build their own businesses, with marketing and management skills stacked along the way.