/ 21 February 2020

Get TVET colleges to work first before investing in new campuses

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

Shortly after President Cyril Ramaphosa concluded his State of the Nation address (Sona) last Thursday, one of my best friends wrote on our WhatsApp group: “As a mother in the Eastern Cape, I can’t cheer the grade R-3 coding and robotics programme in schools while our children are still in mud schools with no resources.”

On Friday I attended a post-Sona discussion where one of the panellists said the grade R to grade 3 coding and robotics programme meant little when children cannot read, adding that the equipment would be stolen because security at most schools is inadequate.

The sentiments of my friend and the panellist are not absurd. They may well be the thoughts of many parents whose children attend schools with pit toilets, or whose children have to sit on the floor because there are no desks, or they may be the thoughts of teachers who have to teach without textbooks.

But, that issue aside, I want to focus on the announcement by the president that nine new technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges are going to be built this year in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.

Ramaphosa was being economical with the truth about these colleges. Construction of four started last year and two are being refurbished. This is information that the department of higher education presented to Parliament last year.

Now that is out of the way.

The president’s announcement comes after the higher education minister, Blade Nzimande, announced the construction of 12 new college campuses in 2012 at a cost of R2.5-billion.

But, to date that project is yet to be concluded. Most of those campuses are still works in progress. A report by the higher education department to Parliament last year cited a number of reasons, many years later, that the construction of the campuses was yet to be completed. Among the reasons were protests, shortage of water and local businesses wanting a stake in the projects.

There has been an effort by the state to expand the TVET college sector. At present, there are 50 multi-campus colleges in the country.

But the reality is that the systems at many of these colleges are simply not working.

Back in 2012, Nzimande made a call that these colleges must be “institutions of choice” for prospective students. But year in and year out, large numbers of students still choose universities over colleges.

That is why we still see a university with space for 5 000 first-year students receiving 18 000 applications. This tells us that the TVET colleges are not attractive to the majority of South African students.

But this does not mean the state must not invest in these colleges or not try to persuade potential students that they offer a path to a sustainable career.

Although the expansion of infrastructure is a good investment, it would perhaps be more prudent to first ensure that the sector functions optimally.

The higher education department told Parliament last year that 11 out of the 50 colleges — except those in the Western Cape — were under poor management, with weak oversight and systems.

The department said the problems in 11 rogue colleges included gross maladministration, theft, corruption, financial mismanagement and poor human resource management skills. Teaching and learning had stopped at some of the colleges because of a number of inefficiencies.

Some of these colleges submitted names of people to serve on their councils who had not been properly vetted. They put forward names of people who could have been fraudsters or charged with serious crimes to serve on their highest decision-making body.

The colleges are supposed to play a pivotal role in the development of this country. There are ongoing infrastructure projects in South Africa that require graduates from colleges. Every day people need bricklayers, electricians and plumbers.

So we need a college sector that works.

Investment must be put into making sure the sector has systems that function as they should and that relevant and knowledgeable people are on the boards of these colleges to ensure that they serve the youth of South Africa.

We need to arrive at a place where the majority of students in the country opt to study at TVET colleges rather than at universities. This will only happen if the sector functions effectively. Until then any investment ploughed into these colleges may well be in vain.