SOUTH AFRICA: Integrating post-school education

The launch in January 2012 of a cabinet-approved green paper on post-school education and training will intensify efforts to create a coherent higher education and training system in South Africa and set the tone for much of the work of the Department of Higher Education and Training for the rest of the year.

The creation of a new and integrated post-school system - a persistent intention of Higher Education and Training Minister Dr Blade Nzimande since assuming office in 2009 - aims to respond to a situation in which about three million young South Africans aged between 18 and 24 are neither employed nor involved in education or training.

As noted by Professor Ahmed Bawa, incoming chair of Higher Education South Africa (HESA) and vice-chancellor of the Durban University of Technology, not all of these individuals can be accommodated by the country's existing public universities, which are already operating at "maximal capacity".

Increasing pressure on the higher education system can only be addressed through the "creation of a coherent post-school education system and to understand how we may develop a more vibrant, quality-sensitive private higher education system," he told University World News.

Bawa said a second "systemic" challenge for 2012 was the under-preparedness of students admitted to universities, particularly those universities that predominantly serve students who arrive from poor schools.

"The question is not whether these young people should be at university or not. It is whether universities can respond in a positive way to giving them a shot at being educated at a high level - to grow intellectually and vocationally."

An integrated post-school system

Ministerial advisor John Pampallis said the department would like to see all institutions that fall within the DHET's ambit "working together for maximum benefit" in a single system.

It is an aim that will certainly need coordination.

Since 2009, when the new DHET was created, not only do these institutions include universities, further education and training (FET) colleges and adult education centres, and regulatory and advisory bodies such as the Council on Higher Education, the South African Qualifications Authority and Umalusi, but also South Africa's 21 Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs).

The minister has consistently indicated that he views SETAs as one of the best entities through which to forge partnerships between employers and educational institutions such as universities and colleges, and that the FET college system should be further expanded.

During a keynote address at the Jobs for Youth Coalition in October 2011, Nzimande said the situation in South Africa where there were three university students for every college student "should be reversed" to address the serious shortage of mid-level personnel.

Pampallis said the ministry's aim is to have universities "doing a lot more" in terms of strengthening FET colleges, which are set to have an expanded role. One way of doing this is to have some (not all, he stressed) universities assist in training of FET lecturers.

"We are not talking about pre-service training, but the upgrading of lecturers," he told University World News. "Most FET lecturers are either qualified teachers with no specific insight into the FET training needs, or they are artisans without pedagogical skills."

He said the ministry would also like to see universities undertaking more research on the relationship between education and the labour market and assisting generally in building closer relationships between SETAs, employers and educational institutions.

He added that the green paper would address the issue of funding for the development of productive partnerships.

"Different types of universities will have different priorities," said Pampallis, but it does seem like the coordinated system envisaged in the forthcoming green paper will produce benefits - not only for FET colleges.

Pampallis said it is estimated that some 25,000 students of universities of technology, particularly those in engineering-related fields, have struggled to find workplaces that will enable them to undergo practical training and complete the third year of their diploma. "It's also a problem with the placement of artisans from FET colleges," he said.

Differentiation and funding

According to Pampallis, another priority for 2012, also taken up by the green paper, will be "putting to bed" the thorny issue, debated since 1994, of institutional differentiation.

Early attempts at differentiation, most notably through the National Plan for Higher Education, which proposed the creation of different levels of universities ranging from bedrock or teaching-focused institutions to research-led institutions, were vetoed on the basis that they would further entrench historical inequalities between institutions.

Pampallis said the aim is to create a "more rational" university system without moving away from the current broad categorisation of institutions: traditional universities, comprehensive universities and universities of technology.

He said the problem in the current system was that differentiation within institutions in the same category was often as significant, owing to apartheid, as differentiation between categories. "Fort Hare and the University of Cape Town, for example, are both traditional universities, but are extremely different," he explained.

The upcoming green paper, said Pampallis, outlines various principles according to which the higher education system should be organised. While acknowledging the current state of categorisation, the green paper argues that further categorisation in the sector should be avoided. The document acknowledges the need for a variety of institutions in order for the sector to serve national interests and the capacity of institutions to develop and change their focus over time.

High quality undergraduate-level education at all universities is seen as the first step in overcoming historical disadvantage and the green paper argues that a four-year undergraduate degree should be given support where necessary.

Another principle outlined by the paper is the fact that the university system is an integral part of the post-school system, and it encourages cooperation between universities and SETAs, employers and labour.

Importantly, the green paper also accepts the limitations of the existing one-size-fits-all funding formula and promotes the principle that differentiation should be reflected in the funding system.

Pampallis said the review committee looking at the funding formula for universities, headed by former trade unionist and businessman Cyril Ramaphosa, would report at the end of April, constituting an important area of focus for the DHET.

Student matters

Bawa said the other "perennial challenges" facing higher education were student financial aid and student accommodation, both of which would be supported this year by studies initiated by the minister. "These issues have to be understood in terms of the socio-economic status of the majority of the students in the higher education system," he said.

Pampallis said the ministerial review on student accommodation had provided the basis for far-reaching infrastructural development, particularly in the case of historically disadvantaged universities and those in rural areas.

He said that among the department's biggest successes during the previous year was the improved effectiveness of the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), which received an unqualified audit in October 2011.

He said free education for poor students up to undergraduate level was a long-term plan (arising officially out of a resolution of the African National Congress' Polokwane Conference in 2007). But support for poor students had improved dramatically and the issue was receiving ongoing attention from the DHET.

"In over two-and-a-half years, the NSFAS budget has doubled to R5 billion (US$0.62 billion)," he said.

Other achievements include the introduction of loans for final-year students, which for the first time cover the full cost of study and will be converted to bursaries if students pass.

Full bursary support for qualifying FET students has trebled since 2010, from R318 million to R1.2 billion. The DHET has also set aside a special bursary fund in the region of R77 million dedicated to supporting students with disabilities at universities and to cover their full cost of study.

Pampallis said the department had approached institutions to provide funds for those students whose families earn above the threshold but who also do not qualify for commercial loans.

Also on the cards for 2012 is further debate on the status and role of African languages in universities, the focus of a review panel appointed by the minister.

"The first step towards strengthening African language departments may be to make a second language compulsory for some students," said Pampallis. Some - but not all - universities are already doing this with respect to medical students and social work students.