Viewing post-school education from a youth perspective

In January 2012 South Africa was shocked to hear of the death of a mother at the gates of the University of Johannesburg. Gloria Sekwena had returned from her job in the United Kingdom to make sure that her school-leaving son, Kgotsisile, would find a place at the university.

Queuing with hundreds of other hopeful late applicants and their parents, she was trampled to death when the gates were opened later than anticipated and the crowd surged forward to get to the front of the late admissions queue.

On that day, Gloria Sekwena joined Hector Pieterson – the 13-year-old killed during the protest march that started the 1976 student uprising in Soweto – as a symbol of the ongoing struggle for access to education in South Africa.

But will this be the last frontier in the development of a high-quality education and training system?

Despite the gains made since the 1994 democratic elections in increasing access to schooling, issues of quality, the ‘pipeline’ feed from schooling into post-school education and training, and the integration between education and skills development have presented significant challenges, particularly in meeting labour market needs in an increasingly high-skilled economy.

In 2009 government responded to persistent weaknesses in the education and skills development sectors by creating two separate ministries: a Ministry of Basic Education with a focus on schooling, and a Ministry of Higher Education and Training combining, for the first time, post-school education and training.

In January 2012 the Department of Higher Education and Training published a Green Paper for Post-school Education and Training, which outlines a vision for “a single, coherent, differentiated and highly articulated post-school education and training system” that aims to overcome South Africa’s structural challenges by “expanding access to education and training opportunities and increasing equity, as well as achieving high levels of excellence and innovation”.

The identification of 2.8 million young people between the ages of 18 and 24 who are not in education, employment or training (NEET) provided a reality check in assessing the performance of the education and training system as a whole.

While South Africa is not alone in confronting the problem of high levels of youth unemployment, its future is clearly in jeopardy when almost half (42%) of this age group have no prospects of becoming productively engaged in society.

Living without employment, education or training

Drawing on the 2010 research of Lauren A Graham, a PhD candidate at the Centre for Social Development in Africa, University of Johannesburg, a case study of 10 young people between the ages of 18 and 29 – six women and four men – provided a snapshot of the struggle for work and employment among South Africa’s youth.

Seven of the group dropped out of school before the end of Grade 12, for various reasons related largely to poverty, and personal reasons such as pregnancy. Only three of the group completed school-leaving examinations, called 'matric'.

One young man earned a university entrance pass but could not afford to go to university. Another got involved in crime and eventually went to prison, where he taught himself various skills including soccer coaching. His post-school training can thus be considered to be experiential or informal.

One young woman was able to go to university, but did not get the required entrance marks for teaching and gained late admission to a diploma in retail management. She has started first year, but is waiting on the results of bursary applications – an example of someone whose post-school education future is by no means secure.

Over the years, eight of the young people managed to access employment of various kinds, but these were mostly short-term and poorly paid positions, particularly in the case of the young women.

Two of the young men had more success in finding longer-term employment, despite not having a matric qualification. But one lost the job after his three-year contract expired, and another worked as an assistant welder for seven years but left the company because he never received a pay increase or a promotion.

Features of the NEET youth experience

This small group of young people demonstrates some of the circumstances that characterise the youth experience of not working or studying.

Strong gender trends are evident and with one exception the young women are ‘stuck’. They have not been able to access further education, have had to accept piece-work, have fallen pregnant at a young age, and lack avenues through which to pursue their aspirations. One is HIV-positive and has two children.

The young men in this group fare slightly better. All four found work at various stages and two were employed for three and seven years respectively. But in all cases these experiences were characterised by disjointed learning with little opportunity for progression.

Almost all of these young people are isolated, out of touch with networks that can guide them into post-school education opportunities or employment options, and lack support to make the transition into programmes or work experience through which they are able to realise their own aspirations and build their lives.

Instead of being able to pursue a coherent learning path, their work experience is piecemeal, insecure and survivalist. Generally they take whatever income-generating opportunities they can get and there is no progression from one learning experience to another.

As a result, despite being young people who display resourcefulness, courage and resilience, they are unable to build their asset base, and lack the means to find opportunities to nurture their talent, follow their passion and support their movement from schooling into further education, training and employment.

Poor health, interrupted education, involvement in criminal activity, discouragement and depression caused by negative labour market experiences and teenage or early pregnancy are all factors that are present in the lives of the young people and endemic to the condition of youth not in employment, education or training.

Youth engagement at community level

Young people who have the opportunity to participate in civil society organisations, faith-based organisations or political parties are able to tap into the political and social processes that support their development and could work to their advantage, according to the Southern Africa Trust.

In the sample group of youth, community-based volunteering emerged as one avenue for alternative engagement in productive activity. One started and runs a community youth group, another runs a soccer club for local youth, another runs an informal crèche on a voluntary basis, and a fourth volunteered in an orphanage.

The experience of these four young people indicates that volunteer activity represents one avenue whereby marginalised young people can develop skills and derive a sense of meaning and connection in their lives. This is supported by experience worldwide.

Research by the Southern Africa Trust (2010) has shown that civil society organisations can contribute to addressing youth vulnerability by virtue of their positioning at the interface between policy and practice.

The question is whether these nodes can be supported to provide marginalised young people with a springboard for development and for re-entering the social and economic mainstream.

Stephanie Allais points out that throughout civil society there have been many organisations (non-profit and for-profit) that provide youth with access to a variety of qualifications, many of which are customised to the workplace. This access point has, however, been weakened by the centralised nature of a flawed qualifications policy.

She argues that the regulatory environment has made it extremely difficult for community- based organisations to respond to needs on the ground: “Instead of directly meeting the needs of communities or clients, providers have been forced to design their programmes against unit standards and meet the accreditation requirements of various SETAs [Sector Education and Training Authorities].”

A range of strategies have been suggested to support young people volunteering, including resources and funding for community organisations providing young people with access to opportunities for further development.

Policy considerations

Chapters in the book provide insights into policy issues that need to be taken into account in order to scaffold young people’s efforts to move out of the margins of society and enhance their holistic development and productivity.

The literature suggests that an integrated set of strategies providing young people with varied options is required to alleviate hardships, particularly during periods of economic decline. Young people out of education or training are most likely to lapse into chronic joblessness.

However, crafting an integrated response is likely to be a challenge.


The importance of creating a variety of learning pathways and differentiated education and training opportunities emerges strongly. This is of particular significance given the tendency in public debate to describe young people as though they belong to a homogeneous group.

A 1990s study by the Community Agency for Social Enquiry (CASE) was the first to segment the circumstances of young people in South Africa and to provide evidence that there are those young people who are ‘fine’, those who are ‘at risk’ and those who are ‘lost’.

What has since emerged is that those ‘at risk’ and ‘lost’ have many different needs and aspirations. In their chapter Trish Gibbon, Johan Muller and Heather Nel point out that achieving the goal of equity and access to education and training implies disaggregating even further the categories of young people.

Some of these distinctions are: those who have left school without completing the national senior certificate or its vocational equivalent; those who have a school-leaving certificate but do not meet university requirements; those who meet university requirements but cannot find a place or cannot afford the fees; those who are admitted to university but may not succeed; and working youth and adults seeking to upgrade their skills through training.

In addition, there is a large pool of young people with a relatively high level of achievement who are not attracted to further education and training (FET) colleges or to occupational training offered by SETAs in their current form.

Gibbon et al stress that much of the differentiation present in the post-school system inherited by post-apartheid South Africa has been lost through restructuring processes. Not only has this reduced differentiation between institutions, but it has also produced a loss of places and spaces through which young people can seek to pursue their talents and dreams.

This has produced scepticism about the value of FET college training and created a situation in which university is a first and only choice for many school-leavers. It is not more universities that are needed, but more post-school options at pre-university level.

To this may be added the need for nodes of specialisation within an array of post-school options, not only to meet the varied interests of young people in a broad range of technical and professional fields, but also to produce the skills required throughout the economy.

The authors point out that the Green Paper does not address the need for a rich array of technical colleges and specialised colleges offering intermediate qualifications, and also provides little detail on how universities can support the development of this rich array of post-school learning opportunities – and that this is a missed opportunity.


What emerges strongly from the life experiences of the sample group is the impact of poverty in shaping young people’s education and training options. A lack of funds is the single largest obstacle for most youth who are neither employed nor in education or training.

Without access to bursaries, most of the young women in this group have few prospects for completing their schooling or for taking the next step into post-school education or training.

The Green Paper recognises the need for financial assistance to support poor students and notes that the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) was extended to FET colleges in 2011. However, it fails to provide sufficient detail of how the scheme will be publicised and administered to ensure that it can meet the needs of young people.


How do the group’s experiences compare with the trends in training? An analysis of the bi-annual Labour Force Surveys (2000-07) shows that levels of training decreased during this period. Skills training is more prevalent than formal tertiary training, especially among youth, where 10% receive skills training and 6.22% receive tertiary education.

However, training is more common for men than women and, overall, only around 19% of South Africans receive some form of post-school training. The youth sample is in line with the survey findings, which show that among young people the overall decline in longer training programmes has been offset by an uptake of shorter courses.

Although training is more prevalent than formal tertiary education, by 2007, 41% of training courses were under six months in duration. But a range of short courses may not add up to any significant skills development for prospective employment.


The decreasing levels of training are not unrelated to the complexity of the qualifications system, which may have produced a credibility gap owing to standards and outcomes not being understood or trusted by members of the public (or employers).

This is likely to produce a sense of confusion among young people and their families, who need to assess where best to invest their very scarce resources in post-school education or training in order to access the labour market.

According to Allais, the policy focus has been on crafting the qualifications framework in technical and bureaucratic terms, a process that produced narrowly framed and lengthy unit standards and occurred at the expense of strengthening the capacity of state, private and community-based providers.

This has contributed to the low uptake of National Qualifications Framework-designed qualifications, partly because they were so difficult to work with. The other reason for low uptake was little visible improvement in enabling members of the public to select lines of study according to their areas of interest and with any real prospect of finding work.

Lack of trust is likely to be exacerbated by what Allais describes as the exclusive use of outcomes as a basis for creating standards, thus fragmenting or undermining knowledge, which can result in “workers getting very narrow training for specific tasks, with no holistic conception of an occupation”.

The past decades thus demonstrate a strong policy focus on crafting the qualifications system without simultaneously seeing the creation of strong institutions as the primary driver of qualifications that have currency in the public domain and are workable in terms of assessment.

Institutional arrangements

Gibbon et al outline a vision of a post-school education and training system with a relatively small university sector in relation to “a strong base that offers a wide range of education and training opportunities to school-leavers, and is attuned to social and economic needs, particularly those of the labour market”.

Significantly, they argue for the provision of a wider range of programmes that would appeal to many of the young people in the sample, and could lead straight to the job market. With a bridging programme to aid transition back into learning as adults, and some financial support, many people would be able to access college or university as mature youths.

What is distinctive about these recommendations is that the institutions offering post-school education and training should operate together as a system in which the various parts relate to one another in clearly defined ways.

Gibbon et al cite the features of a seamless post-school system as being the following: private colleges complement the public system, students are able to move between and among institutions, students are able to progress without being trapped in dead ends, institutions are differentiated both vertically and horizontally, and institutions are established in rural as well as urban areas.

Such a system would be underpinned by coordinated quality assurance and funding systems, formal articulation agreements between institutions, careful alignment of curricula in common fields, and a review of vocational curricula and subject combinations to articulate more strongly with the labour market and allow for closer articulation with higher education.

The vision positions higher education as a small sector operating in close proximity to and supportive of expanded post-school college education. It envisages relationships between universities and FET colleges in order, firstly, to build academic, leadership and managerial capacity within colleges and, secondly, to establish articulation and progression pathways between institutions.

A range of partnerships are already in place, but need to be scaled up considerably.

In their chapter Rolf Stumpf, Joy Papier, Timothy McBride and Seamus Needham examine the possibility of FET colleges offering some higher education study, and conclude that some are already doing so in respect of higher certificate programmes.

They propose that this be formalised so that FET colleges can offer Higher Education Qualifications Framework-aligned higher certificates in fields that correspond with those in which universities of technology or comprehensive universities are active.

Prospects for increasing education and training

Currently FET colleges show very low levels of enrolment for their target groups. In 2010, they enrolled 0.6% of 15- to 17-year-olds, 3.2% of 18- to 24-year-olds and 0.2% of 25- to 35-year-olds. There were also low rates of completion of higher certificates, of around 40%, indicating an inefficient system and poorly prepared students.

A survey by Stumpf et al indicated that there is room for the FET colleges studied to expand their enrolment by some 1,600 extra students without requiring additional capacity in respect of human resources, infrastructure and equipment. Should they have the funds to employ additional staff and improve infrastructure, this figure could rise to 2,800 students.

Sheppard and Sheppard provide two scenarios for the growth of the FET colleges sector. But projections made for growth demonstrate that whatever strategies are followed to upscale FET enrolments, these are unlikely to deal decisively with the extremely large numbers of young people out of work and not in education or training and will not meet government’s target of four million college enrolments.

Stumpf et al recommend that South Africa learn from Australia’s efforts to do more than make improved post-school education and training opportunities available. Recognising that significant numbers of young people are at risk, the Australian government has adopted a policy titled National Partnership on Youth Attainment and Transitions.

It aims to help young people re-engage to complete school, deepen the connections between youth, schools and the wider community, provide young people with the information they need to make informed choices about further education and training options, and ensure that they will have the qualifications needed to take up jobs as and when these become available.

The challenge of change

The proposals, research results and scenarios captured in Shaping the Future of South Africa’s Youth provide some direction for scaling up FET colleges within the post-school landscape.

Nevertheless, policy-makers should be mindful of the observation made by Sean Archer in the Mail and Guardian in January, that in South Africa planning suffers from “the presumption that once a goal is stated, usually at a high level of generality, that is enough to generate action”.

Based on the experiences of the young people in the sample, employers emerge as a central point of contact. In none of the cases did employers feature as a support mechanism guiding the young people who worked for them. Nevertheless, employers could serve as one avenue through which young people are supported to become work-ready and channelled towards education and training.

The youth wage subsidy proposed by the National Treasury in 2011 and reiterated in the state of the nation address in 2012 is one aspect of a fleet of measures proposed to address the circumstances of young people not working or studying. It proposes a multi-pronged strategy to tackle youth unemployment as a priority in the government’s current programme of action.

Activities include a focus on youth brigades and other forms of public employment, trialling the proposed youth employment subsidy, improving education performance in schools and in the FET system, improving career guidance services to match skills to jobs, skills development and job placement, establishing a monitoring system, and strengthening relationships with youth service agencies.

In the chapter reviewing international practice, Tia Linda Zuze points out that Latin American countries have led the way in implementing programmes that incorporate job training, career counselling and job placement with industry-specific incentives such as wage subsidies, particularly among low-income youth aged 16 to 29.

She mentions the Entra 21 project, successfully implemented in 18 Latin American countries with a focus on training youth for work in the IT industry, as well as an innovative approach to training in Kenya that focused on the informal sector and provided small business leaders with vouchers to upgrade their equipment and skills, including for their trainees.


The contributions in this book indicate that there is a dire need to foreground young people as a key focus of policy innovation. As a burgeoning majority in the country, young people’s needs should be taking centre stage across all facets of public policy.

Central to crafting an effective response to a ‘youth time bomb’ is the need for the integration of youth-focused planning across policy platforms and inter-departmental structures.

Currently, the National Youth Policy represents little more than an isolated statement of the condition of young people in South Africa, while the NYDA is ill-equipped and under-resourced to meet the scale of need that only government can address.

It is difficult to find any government policy that does not have some effect (often indirect or unintentional) on youth, yet there is little evidence that government ministries prioritise youth needs for integrated policy action.

This study shows clearly that unless the restructuring of the post-school education and training sector takes the perspective and circumstances of the poor as a starting point, efforts to create responsive policies in the schooling and post-school arena are destined to fail.

Without adequate and appropriate forms of financial assistance, improved quality of schooling and strengthened post-school education and training provision, young people living in poverty will continue to lack access to the opportunities needed for them to break out of chronic unemployment and poverty.

Fast-tracking the implementation of a Central Information and Applications Service for higher education would constitute one small response to Gloria Sekwena’s death.

Should policy-makers recognise the urgency of the crisis and find the political will to take the necessary steps to address it, it will be important to communicate clearly and directly with young people across the country about new opportunities for their advancement through post-school education and training.

South Africa’s powerful logistical and communications capacity, deployed in support of numerous peaceful elections over the past 18 years and a very successful census in 2011, needs to be harnessed in order to reach young people wherever they are and engage them in taking the next steps in their post-school development.

Only then will the millions of young people living on the margins of South African society be able to enter the doors of learning quickly enough to take control of their lives and help secure a productive future for us all.

* This article by Helene Perold is a shortened version of her concluding chapter in the book, Sharping the Future of South Africa’s Youth: Rethinking post-school education and skills training, edited by Perold, Nico Cloete and Joy Papier and just published by African Minds for the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), the Southern African Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU) and the Further Education and Training Institute (FETI). The book is freely available on the CHET website here.