/ 14 September 2023

Tackling the disconnect between colleges and communities

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

The past two decades have seen a raft of policy plans seeking to alleviate the pressures of youth unemployment and respond to the refrain of skills development in this cohort. 

And yet young black people remain largely unemployed at a rate of 62.1% in the 15 to 24 year age cohort and 40.7% in the 25 to 34 year age group. Alarmingly, 36.1% of the 15 to 24 year age cohort are not in education, training or employment. 

At the same time, many local formal economies and labour markets in district and local municipalities remain under-developed and under-resourced and its people unemployed or under-employed. There is a disconnect and misalignment between colleges and the needs of local economies. 

How are we able to strengthen the power of technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges to grow a society and economy that at once holds the promise of a future, while harnessing opportunities of the present? By intrinsically connecting the local TVET college to the local economic growth sectors identified in the Integrated Development Plans of the district municipality. 

The 50 TVET colleges are located in the architecture of access to education and the labour market. And yet we must ask the following questions of the system: are TVET offerings relevant to the needs and challenges of local and provincial informal and formal economies; can local industries identified in local Integrated Development Plans (IDPs) rely on TVET colleges to graduate labour into those local industries; and can district municipalities and TVET colleges have a more legislated relationship to support the vision of IDPs? 

A cursory glance of economic, education and social policy at a national and provincial level shows that we are not short on policies. We fail at the alignment of policies to the reality of life at the local level.

These policies include the White Paper for Post-school Education and Training (2012), growth agendas such as National Development Plan 2030, the National Infrastructure Plan 2050, the Massification of Skills Development Programme as noted in the 2023-24 department of public works budget speech, the District Development Model and to annual budget and programme allocations by provincial governments for youth skills development such as the Tshepo 500 000 launched in 2014 by the Gauteng government, and the R530 million investment in 2016 by the Western Cape government to increase apprenticeship. 

An illustration of the disconnect can be found in the Western Cape. The West Coast municipal district (WCMD) has identified fire and rescue, coastal management and climate change as part of its IDP 2022-27. A cursory exploration of the West Coast College programmes shows that the offerings have no direct connection to climate change mitigation, disaster management, renewable energy transitions, biodiversity and coastal conservation management, oceans economy and maritime trade. 

While curricula transitions are slow moving projects, many young people residing in the West Coast municipal district will not be able to access the skills through a public TVET college required to help grow their communities into the 21st century.

And yet communities located on the West Coast have identified agro-ecology, food security and land and agrarian transformation campaigns and strategies to mitigate the effect of climate change and environmental degradation on the quality of their lives and societies. The strategies include building the necessary skills of young people to support the sustainability of life in a rural and oceans economy setting. 

A second illustration is in the City of Cape Town. The city is home to three TVET colleges which have established relationships with industry partners to facilitate employment placements, a strong student support system and quality resources to facilitate teaching and learning. 

The film industry located in the city is a lucrative revenue generator. A recent study commissioned by the city shows that the film industry contributes about R5 billion to the local economy with 35 000 jobs created. And yet, none of the three TVET colleges offer courses in film and television production. 

These illustrations show evidence of the misalignment and disconnect between education and labour, education and the local needs of a local economy. Most importantly the disconnect cannot harness the power and inherent skills of young people and communities, so where people live is reflected in their lives and dreams. What are the most immediate steps to be taken that can assist in a new imaginary for TVET colleges?

First, the incremental devolvement of higher education TVET mandates to provinces and local governments. This may contribute in bringing the TVET function closer to the District Development Model environment and locate its function in the intergovernmental planning space to leverage economic, education and labour policy frameworks.

Second, re-imagined TVET courses that can service the economic, environmental and social demands of municipalities, local economies and industries. Programmes such as disaster management, fire management, coastal and biodiversity stewardship, film and television production are all examples of programmes that can respond to the desired outcomes of economic growth aspirations in the West Coast and the City of Cape Town. 

And finally, campus and college expansion to rural areas so that young people have greater post-schooling options where they live. This may help stave the youth brain drain to urban centres and ensure local skills are developed for local industries by a local public TVET college. 

It is clear that the TVET landscape, through the efforts of colleges and the department of higher education and training, can be a powerhouse of potential for the economy, and contribute to realising the youth dividend so evident in our population.

Connecting the dots between the needs of the district municipality and college programmes can be one way of aligning education with a labour market and the society of our longing. The challenge of a changing world must be met with a strong public education system in which all young people can harness their talents, prepare for active and engaged citizenship and, crucially, take their place in a just and fair labour market and economy. The TVET college can be the pathway to this at the local level. 

Helga Jansen-Daugbjerg is a Cannon Collins Scholar and PhD candidate in the School of Education at the University of Cape Town. She hosts and co-produces the podcast Africa in Conversation available on Spotify