Colleges need a professional council

COMMENT

No one can doubt that, since its inception, the South African Council for Educators (Sace) has been a vital cog of safeguarding, regulating and developing the teaching profession and, importantly, upholding codes of good conduct and standards for professional practice.

While the regulatory body continues to register Technical and Vocational Education and Training college lecturers, the white paper for post-school education and training sets a clear mandate for college educators to have their own professional council that would help to build a strong sense of identity and pride among themselves, as Sace tends to be overwhelmingly absorbed with the concerns of the much larger number of school teachers. 

This view is relatively congruent with the research by Sace on its position on the professional registration of college lecturers, which unequivocally outlines two legislative deviations from the registration of the transmitters of mid-level skills. 

The first legislative deviation was the passing of the Continuing Education and Training Act, which gave some degree of institutional autonomy to the colleges. 

According to Sace, this Act changed the status of employment of college staff from being the responsibility of provincial departments of education to college councils. It is important to note that the Act has removed from its definitions the notion of an “educator” and has replaced that concept with the notion of a “lecturer” with significant conceptual ramifications. 

The autonomy that has been given to the public colleges in terms of the Act could precipitate an argument that there should be no professional registration system for college lecturers by Sace. Autonomy should mean that the colleges focus a lot more on professionalising themselves so that it is equal to the task of taking forward and making meaningful the autonomy accorded to it by legislation.

The second deviation was an enactment of the Basic Education Laws Amendment Bill, which not only moved the sector to the department of higher education but also restricted Sace’s professional registration mandate to school-based educators only. 

It is noteworthy that the education system comprises three bands of the National Qualifications Framework — general education and training, technical and vocational education and training, and higher education and training. Two out of three have their own professional statutory bodies but colleges do not. 

As we have two education departments — basic education, and higher education and training — one could argue that, as these colleges form part of post-school education, they should fall under the jurisdiction of the higher education council or have their own professional council.

But, given the brutally frank assessment by Sace and the white paper, it becomes painfully clear from the legislative perspective that teaching in colleges cannot be classified as a profession at this juncture other than being conceptualised as an occupation that enables lecturers to interpret and implement college curricula through teaching and learning.

Aside from developing sectoral registration mechanisms for college lecturers, there seems to be an unavailability of data through which to effectively analyse and evaluate college workforce professional development or regulatory framework by Sace insofar as improving the status of college lecturer professionalism is concerned.

On the other hand, one would have thought that when the department of higher education introduced the national policy on the professional qualifications for college lecturers, which seeks to strengthen the quality of teaching and learning within the sector, the establishment of a professional statutory body for lecturers would be an urgent task.

Judging from universities’ websites in their faculties of education, it purportedly appears that few are offering an advanced diploma in technical and vocational teaching. This reluctance by universities to implement this policy derails the highly needed college pedagogical training and also concisely tells us that pessimistic perceptions about public colleges still persist while a dearth of capacity and confidence to take the plunge in turning them around remains great.

The lack of a professional council that specifically advances the interest of college lecturers ameliorates the status of the sector, safeguards the technical and vocational pedagogies and frequently regulates the industry-driven practice of college practitioners exacerbates the pain of neglect that these public colleges suffered over the decades of underdevelopment, underfunding, mismanagement, incapacity and systemic corruption.

More often than not, this has made college educators have an unclear professional identity, resulting in having a low status in the entire post-school education and training system. 

It is also argued that, despite some college lecturers holding academic qualifications such as master’s degrees and more, the status and perception of college lecturing have not been formally documented and the evidence on the ground suggests that lecturers are not the most valuable repositories and transmitters of mid-level skills. Staff morale is too low and there is little research on the biographical profiles of lecturing staff, their motivation for choosing to teach, their attitudes and values and their career paths.

The absence of regulatory body has, to some larger extent, created a casualisation of college lecturing employment, compounded by the institutionalised abuse of power in spite of the roll-out of the post-provisioning norms project to prohibit this exploitative system that has increased dismissal practices, reduced the regulation and protection of lecturers in the workplace, and left little room for unions to organise and bargain collectively.

The apparent lack of professionalisation in the sector raises pressing questions as to how to effectively improve college lecturers’ practices when there is no empirical data pertaining to the reality of teaching and training in the sector.

If college qualifications policy categorically stipulates that these qualifications are applied uniquely to these lecturers and not appropriate for teaching in schools and should be used for that purpose, why are lecturers required to register professionally with a council that is specifically designed for school teachers only while on the contrary, they are legislatively restricted?

And what measures have been put at a higher tempo to combat casualisation of employment, which has severely affected contract lecturers’ livelihoods in relation to the colleges’ freedom to hire and fire haphazardly without complying with the relevant labour laws?

The answer, at least in part, is that the government is not driving the process of professionalising the college system with serious intent to achieve the strategic objectives of the white paper. 

Its unwillingness and incapacity to change the colleges’ modus operandi and provide sufficient funding are a major cause of these colleges allegedly appearing to form a separate system within the broader post-school education and training sector.

This is why these colleges are still using some of the policies of schools — salary notch is from the basic education department, teaching hours are that of public schools, the campus’s staff organograms and lecturers’ post levels are not different from that of school teachers and usage of the educators’ statutory body is a typical example.

A better way of keeping the sector and its structures independent, healthy and integrated is to disentangle itself from the traditions, practices, policies, norms and standards of basic education which would, in turn, give birth to the autonomy of the system and to the formation of its statutory body to improve lecturer professionalism, quality and sustainability of the college workforce.

Perhaps we could learn from countries such as Singapore, the Czech Republic, Germany and the United States, among others, on how they have exceptionally sharpened vocational-oriented policies, improved the skilled college workforce, and professionally built the integrated, effective and high quality college system with autonomous statutory bodies for college practitioners. 

The future of our college sector is inextricably linked to the ability and capacity of the department and various role players sharing common interests and goals towards establishing an independent regulatory body that is able and capable to address the contentious issue of salary structure and rebuild an equitable, good quality, efficient college system to realise its full potential in order to contribute positively to the post-school education and training system.

A kind of professional council that becomes a custodian and intellectual hub of colleges in its pedagogic endeavours to improve professionalism, working conditions and enhance the quality of teaching and learning is desperately needed. 

Far-reaching changes in the college terrain are long overdue, urgent and inexorable. Failure to have a college professional council for lecturers will have extremely negative consequences for the system and choke its potential as a powerful engine of national development.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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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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