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Further education expansion to improve diversity

Across Africa, growing numbers of young people are finishing school but there has not been a corresponding increase in university students: fewer than 4% of young Africans enter higher education. In South Africa, expanding further education and training is seen as a way to open access to post-school education, raise student numbers, plug a skills gap – and improve diversity in the tertiary system. The plan is to enrol a million further education students by 2014, said Penny Vinjevold, a deputy director in the Department of Education.

As elsewhere in Africa, South Africa’s school system is increasingly retaining young people, with around one million children in each grade. But there is a sharp drop-out rate in the last few years of school, the 17 to 19-year age group. The government is hoping to attract this ‘lost’ group – as well as matriculated school leavers who do not qualify for university or are not interested in university programmes – into further education and training (FET).

The FET sector in South Africa is smaller than in most other countries. The school sector is the biggest and then higher education, which was expanded under apartheid and now has 740,000 students. “It will take time to catch up and balance the system,” Vinjevold added, in a CHET seminar presentation titled Developing a South African college system: A secondary sector for South Africa.

In terms of differentiation, the idea is that an expanded and improved FET system will provided the greater range in type and level of courses, qualifications and graduates that the country needs. Not only to raise the educational level of its populace but also to plug a yawning skills gap that has been identified as one of the greatest obstacles to continued economic growth.

The National Qualifications Framework, which covers all levels of education, was structured in a way that closely related FET and school-level education – with the last years at school seen as further education. “But it became clear that South Africa could not continue along this route,” Vinjevold said, including if it wanted a more differentiated education system.

South Africa previously had more than 200 mostly small and under-resourced colleges. They represented a wide range of institutions delivering everything from technical, vocational and trade qualifications to higher education, but produced too few graduates. In 2003-04 they were merged into 50 larger colleges offering further and higher education at 230 sites.

The government made R2 billion available to pay for a restructured, strengthened and improved FET system, although this sum is considered insufficient by many. Teaching, nursing and agricultural colleges were incorporated into universities, leading to concerns about loss of differentiation in these key skills fields.

Under a FET College Act promulgated in 2006, colleges were separated from schools and became post-secondary. The Act provides for expansion of the college sector and aims to encourage a flexible and responsive FET system, as well as to promote accountability and guide public funding, governance, appointments, registration of private institutions, quality assurance and transitional arrangements.

Curriculum development has also driven transformation in the FET system, which in the past mostly provided a theoretical grounding for people acquiring vocational or trade skills. The government implemented changes that were aimed at tackling a huge problem of youth unemployment, and took into account international trends.

Interestingly, said Vinjevold, different political perspectives were unequivocal that students “require not only skills that are applicable to work but also a knowledge base that will enable them to adapt as products and production methods change”.

Also, education and training are rapidly becoming inseparable, especially as the notion of a job for life is being replaced with lifelong learning. Employers said they wanted good communication, problem solving and informational technology skills. In developing a new curriculum, these needs translated into the fundamentals of reading, writing, calculating and information technology, and into a combination of conceptual and applied knowledge.

The government introduced a national certificate examination in each of 11 sectors identified as priority skills fields, each consisting of seven subjects including three that are compulsory – language, mathematics or mathematical literacy, and life skills – and four vocational subjects with both theoretical and practical components.

In 2008 there are 63,000 students enrolled on these national vocational certificate programmes, and the plan is to raise this number to 100,000 by 2010.

The idea, said Vinjevold, is also for FET students to gain access to pre-university training, even as they are doing vocational training. “Whether you’re a baker or a welder or whatever, you need an education. That is what the modern world demands of us. We’ve tried to meet this demand by offering the extra subjects which aim to give a general education, although practical vocational training courses are also available as stand alones.”

While curriculum development has introduced greater diversity of learning within the priority fields, concerns have been expressed that nationally conforming programmes could reduce differentiation, along with government funding of (low fee) priority programmes that will likely siphon students away from the wide range of other courses that colleges offer.

Joy Papier, of the University of the Western Cape, argued that “the same issues affecting differentiation in the higher education system are going to affect FET colleges because policy and funding are moving toward a narrowing of the focus of colleges, rather than differentiation of their potential targets”.

A new funding system, starting in 2008, is programme-based and depends on student numbers. The act requires colleges to report on planned enrolments. FET funding, said Vinjevold, now “responds to the strongest and best colleges, especially as they relate to recruiting, throughput and placing of students”.

The state provides 80% of funding for priority programmes, so no student on a government-sponsored programme pays fees of more than R5,500 – considerably alleviating the problem of finance as an obstacle to student recruitment and retention. Colleges are free to run other programmes, funded from other sources such as fees. Needy students can get bursaries to offset fees: the government has allocated R600 million to the FET colleges Financial Aid Scheme over three years, starting in 2007.

While some colleges offer no higher education programmes, in others up to 40% of courses are at this level. And while some colleges only offer the national certificate, others have just 10% of students on them. So within the programme mix, Vinjevold said, there is diversity in the system.

“In next decade we will look at what the best programme mix might be.” The challenge, she added, would be to ensure that “230 college sites offer a range and diversity of programmes to the million young people who need to be in formal further education and training”.
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