TVET colleges need complete overhaul to quell slow growth trajectory

It is common cause that in almost nine years since the passage of the white paper for post-school education and training, there have been significant achievements in the college community. There has been the transfer of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges into the department of higher education and training and implementation of policy on professional qualifications for lecturers, among others. 

It should also be common cause that, despite these important developments, there has been little tangible progress in the process of strengthening and expanding these colleges and turning them into attractive institutions of choice for school leavers as was envisaged. 

The recent statistics by the department paint a worrisome picture of a substantial decline in student enrolments in this academic year, hovering around 508 000, in what must be a serious point of concern in the college landscape. 

In 2019, records show that 50 public TVET providers enrolled a total of 673 490 people, which showed drastic improvement in the system. More than 50% of students were registered in just three provinces (Gauteng, KwaZulu Natal and Western Cape) and three out of four were under the age of 24. However, 2020/21 data illustrates a steady drop in student intake.

In comparative terms, the TVET band is still very small in size. According to the department’s annual performance plan, the 657 133 TVET enrolments last year is a little over half the 1 085 568 enrolments of the 26 public universities and also half of the total Grade 12 high school enrolments in the same year.

Public universities produced a total of 210 931 graduates in 2020-21. The inefficiency of the TVET system resulted in producing fewer graduates. Most telling, comparing the 72 358 of students who completed their national qualifications from a combination of both National Vocational Certificate level 4 and National Accredited Technical Education Diploma (NATED) N6 programmes against the 124 313 students recorded in 2019-20 shows a widening gap in absolute terms.

It is not known how many TVET graduates found employment or succeeded in establishing their own enterprises, but it is clear from these figures that the impact of college outputs on investment, skills and employment is very limited. 

It should be noted that, notwithstanding the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic on students’ enrolments, the sharp increase in the number of matriculants with university exemptions adversely contributed to an unprecedented decrease in this year’s TVET intakes. This is a grim reminder that public colleges are unlikely to meet their enrolment target of 2.5 million by 2030 and moreover, the persistent slow growth trajectory also succinctly suggests that the pronounced recapitalisation and expansion of the sector has, regrettably not yet realised.  

The question we should be asking ourselves is why, and at what cost, most school leavers continue to view the sector as a less prestigious career option than a university education. Why are people gradually losing interest in technical and vocational skills that are desperately needed in the economic mainstream? What are the main barriers to building colleges on par with universities in order to become institutions of choice?

The answer would reveal a stark difference in the provision of quality education and send a clear message that many policies, priorities and targets that embodied the mid-level skills are not proving as effective as anticipated. They fail to meet the social, economic and human resources demands of a modern knowledge-driven global community and are falling far short of delivering a national skills revolution.  

Of course, we cannot overlook the considerable work that is still in the pipeline to improve the scope and scale of the TVET band in terms of identifying critical posts for recruitment, migrating of staff and selecting a standardised college structure through a post provisioning norms model that is still in its infancy given insufficient investment in the system.

The myriad challenges engulfing the sector are calling for government, policy makers and the industry to urgently consolidate and formulate effective capacity-building mechanisms to reengineer and reshape the college trajectory. At the same time, the following six macro approaches are critical to halt the decline in college participation. 

Phasing out unresponsive TVET curricula

A broader acknowledgement in the academic fora to get rid of NATED ministerial programmes is paramount. These instructional courses are too rigid and obsolete with an unclear set of current NQF levels. They no longer serve the needs of the national labour force nor are they responsive to the highly competitive global economy.

As a greater recognition of curriculum reform challenges, the department should appoint an expert panel to thoroughly investigate in as much context as possible the kind of post matric technical niche qualifications required by communities and the labour market. The panel should formulate a vigorous plan of action to evaluate articulation, quality, relevance and responsiveness of curricula in order to clearly articulate pathways to higher education or the world of work, rebuild linkage with industry and importantly accelerate delivery of digital TVET learning materials and Recognition for Prior Learning (RPL). 

Demystifying ambiguous and confusing admission policies

Admission policies in the college community require a great deal of attention to demystify confusion in the processes of application and enrolment as to who should be enrolled in the TVET system. For instance, students with work experience ought to be placed for the RPL system while those coming from universities with incomplete qualifications are supposed to be credited in order to move to another level. However, given insurmountable challenges in NATED curricula, these students are compelled to start from the scratch.  

This arrangement has not only contributed to poor throughput and dropout rates but also made life difficult for lecturers who must deal with students possessing different educational levels and occupational backgrounds in the same class.

Investment of infrastructure for teaching and learning

The slow pace of improving learning infrastructure has far-reaching negative implications on students’ performance and the image of the sector, and thereby causing hindrances to most vocational and technical courses that need high-tech infrastructure.  

A concerted effort is required to develop new technological infrastructure aligned to artificial intelligence and robotics as among striking features for distribution and viability of digital and online methodologies for teaching and learning. 

Bolstering capacity for policy compliance and Implementation

Lack of capacity to implement policies in TVET providers has to a large extent limited the pace of rationalising the system while compliance is at best lackadaisical and at worst inept. Be that as it may, if we accept that capacity problems exist in some dysfunctional institutions, it means that little attention has been paid to strengthen and capacitate them, or to adopt comprehensive, holistic and coherent monitoring and evaluation approaches.

Development support structures for staff and employment conditions

There is a widely shared view that the college sector is still predominantly organised along authoritarian, racial, hierarchical and bureaucratic lines. These fault-lines accompanied, with unconducive conditions of employment, have made it difficult for staff to address the challenges they face. The department must conduct research about underlying causes of employee attrition in critical positions while developing staff retention strategies that focus on morale, productivity, the profile of lectures and a new standardised salary scale.

This move will enable colleges to attract people with requisite leadership qualities, innovative capacity and market-related skills – resulting in dismantling challenges of governance and management structures, abuse of power, systematic corruption, racism and patronage-based appointment in key managerial positions as the major obstacles to the realisation and achievement of policy goals.

Provide sufficient funding

The sector is facing crippling budget shortfalls, which cast serious doubt over the major assumptions that are embedded in the policies. Without significant funding commitment, implementation of policies will be at worst an empty exercise, at best, a reorganisation of the system we have inherited, rather than the creation of the system we need and deserve.

The extent to which the college community is able to reshape its trajectory and pursue a new paradigm shift will be a litmus test. It will not simply test its capacity but also the ability of government and its stakeholders to coordinate and focus their efforts across departmental boundaries and across the public-private sector divide to resolve deep-seated systemic and structural challenges that have put the TVET system on a perilous crossroads.

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Stanley Ncobela
Stanley Ncobela is an academic and lecturer. He is a regular contributor of opinion pieces on various social, academic and economic issues in the mainstream media and deeply committed to transformation of post-school education and training.

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