SOUTH AFRICA: Minister wants urgent action on skills

South Africa's Minister of Higher Education and Training Blade Nzimande has criticised heavy investment of skills levy funding in short courses of "dubious value", in the face of critical shortages of artisans, accountants and engineers. And he urged government entities and departments to play a bigger role in helping graduates to earn professional accreditation.

On Tuesday Nzimande met representative of 21 sector education and training authorities (SETAs) and professional training bodies in Pretoria, to seek consensus on a common objective - to ensure an adequate supply of skills critical to the economy.

He said there was a need for more courses geared towards structured occupational trade and professional training.

South Africa spends a bigger share of gross domestic product on education than other African countries, but its educational performance comes nowhere near to reflecting this investment.

Intervention to make the post-school system improve delivery has been the mainstay of Nzimande's leadership. Restructuring low-performing SETAs, which draw on skills levy funds to support skills training, has been one of his priorities and began a year ago.

He told the gathering last week that a skilled and capable workforce was critical for decent work, an inclusive economy, labour absorption, rural development, the reduction of inequalities and the need for a more diversified and knowledge-intensive economy.

"Skills deficits and bottlenecks, especially priority and scarce skills, contribute to structural constraints on our growth and developmental path," he said, and these problems needed to be tackled urgently.

One way was to increase access to intermediate and higher learning opportunities for youths and adults, to boost the number of qualified artisans and mid-level skills available in the labour market. More occupation-directed programmes such as in engineering, teaching, health sciences and life and physical sciences, were also needed.

Another blockage was professional accreditation, and Nzimande questioned why only professional bodies and not public entities and government departments - which employ many professionals - were empowered to accredit professional training.

"Why is it that doctors are trained in public hospitals under proper and professional supervision, yet law students can only be trained through private law firms to be admitted as attorneys?" Nzimande asked.

A study conducted by the South Africa Institute for Chartered Accountants in 2008 indicated that the country was short of 5,000 chartered accountants and 17,000 accountants on technical grades. Yet only accountancy firms accredit accountants.

The number of black university students has nearly quadrupled over the past 17 years. But not nearly enough appropriately skilled and qualified people in disciplines central to socio-economic development are being produced by the post-school system.

South Africa's third National Skills Development Strategy (NSD3), unveiled in January, revealed that universities have higher enrolment rates than the further education and training sector.

NSDS3 roped in SETAs and further education and training colleges to support the integration of workplace training with theoretical learning, and to facilitate the transition of young people from school to college or university and then to the workplace.

The National Skills Authority has backed the minister's changes to the constitutions of SETAs, many of which have been seriously under-performing for many years.

But Nzimandi's quest to transform the training authorities and improve their skills delivery suffered a set-back last week when a labour court ruled against governance reforms of the huge Services Sector Education and Training Authority.

CEO Ivor Blumenthal was suspended and escorted from his office by police brought in by the training authority's new chairman. Blumenthal has been outspoken about changes to the SETA's constitution imposed by Nzimande, and accused him of trying to hijack the body.

Labour court Judge Annelie Basson ruled that Nzimande did not have the legal power to impose a new constitution on the SETA, and that the constitution he had tried to impose was in breach of the Skills Development Act, the national paper Business Day reported.

Nqaba Nqandela, chief of staff for the Department of Higher Education and Training, told University World News that the ministry believed the judgment was flawed, and would appeal against it. "We do not think the judge fully applied her mind on the matter."

Nqandela said in a statement that the department believed parts of the judgment could have serious implications for the boundaries and separation of powers between the judiciary and the role of the executive.

Those who would suffer most from the set-back were millions of unemployed black youth and black workers who required skills in order to upgrade their skills and improve their prospects for employment, he said. "As a department we will not allow the future of millions of our youth and workers to be held at ransom."