Rethinking post-school education and skills training

A high-impact 2009 study into post-school youth in South Africa introduced the concept of ‘not in education, employment or training’, or NEET, which became firmly entrenched in the education jargon. It found that a shocking 2.8 million people aged between 18 and 24 years were ‘NEETs’.

Responding to the Educational Needs of Post-school Youth, was funded by the Ford Foundation and based on research by the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), the Further Education and Training Institute (FETI) and the Southern Africa Labour and Development Research Unit (SALDRU).

It drew attention to the potential social disruption that 2.8 million young people not in education, employment or training could cause, and spurred the education ministry to focus on the further education and training (FET) sector.

The impact of the study deepened when 2009 crime statistics showed that the average age of a house robber in South Africa is between 19 and 25 years, and that, of the robbers arrested, 90% did not have a school-leaving certificate and-or were unemployed.

Further afield, of course, the 2011 North African ‘spring’ highlighted the prominent role of young people in those uprisings.

Additional research into the phenomenon of ‘NEETs’ – along with the urgent need to improve access to post-school education for millions of young people, to understand the implications for the education and training system and to theoretically underpin these efforts – led to a second book, launched last month.

Shaping the Future of South Africa’s Youth: Rethinking post-school education and skills training, edited by Helene Perold, Nico Cloete and Joy Papier, is once again the product of a collaborative effort between CHET, the Ford Foundation, FETI at the University of the Western Cape and SALDRU at the University of Cape Town.

The extent of the problem

By 2010 youth unemployment and lack of training opportunities had become an acknowledged problem worldwide. Across the 30 OECD countries, there were nearly 15 million unemployed workers aged 15-24 – four million more than at the end of 2007. In France and Italy, one in four young workers was unemployed; in Spain, 40% were jobless.

Statistics South Africa estimated that the country’s population was close on 50 million in 2010, with 52% of people estimated to be younger than 25. New entrants to the labour market (15- to 24-year-olds) constituted 20% of the total population and 32% of those considered economically active (15- to 64-year-olds). Out of 10.1 million people in the 15-24-year age cohort, 32.7% – 3.3 million – were neither employed nor attending an educational institution.

A 2010 OECD survey of South Africa revealed that the country had the worst unemployment rate for youth between the ages 15 and 24 among 36 countries surveyed in 2008, and that South Africa’s 50% employment rate for working-age youth was lagging behind other middle-income emerging market economies, which employ about 80%.

The situation is compounded by racial disparities: 53.4% of young black 15- to 24-year-olds were unemployed by the end of 2009, which was three times worse than the 14.5% jobless rate of young white South Africans.

On the one hand, youth unemployment is a demand-side problem as the number of jobs created in the economy is too small. On the other hand, youth unemployment is a supply-side problem because many young South Africans lack the appropriate skills, work-related capabilities and higher education qualifications required for a high-skills economy.

The 2009 CHET publication described the post-school environment as being characterised by: (1) a large annual outflow of students from school without meaningful further educational opportunities; (2) a post-school institutional architecture that limits further educational opportunities for young people; (3) lack of integrated and systematic data about ‘excluded youth’; and (4) a recapitalised FET colleges sector that requires capacity building.

Lack of access to higher education

The statistics paint a bleak picture of the need for access to higher education in South Africa.

The number of pupils who wrote the National Senior Certificate exams in 2011 was 496,090. Of these, 348,117 passed, including 347,647 who qualified for entry into university. The estimated number of students who were admitted to university was 175,000 and an equal number of students qualified but did not gain access: 173,117.

To the qualified students who did not enter a university (173,117) should be added the students who failed the Grade 12 exam (147,973) – making a total of 321,090 students who left school with few, if any, options as to what they could do next. A further almost 15,000 students enrolled for the National Senior Certificate but did not write the examinations.

In addition, there is an unknown number of young people who left school having completed Grades nine or 10 or 11 who have even fewer options with regard to continuing education or the possibility of employment.

The accumulated effect of this situation is that in 2010 there were 3.2 million people in the 18-25-year age group who were not in education, employment or training.

The number of ‘NEETs’ must be put into context. There are 950,000 students in South African public and private universities and 400,000 students in public and private FET colleges – a total of 1.35 million.

In other words, there are two-and-a-half times as many young, jobless people who are out of education as there are in education, representing nearly 45% of the 18-25-year-old cohort.

According to the OECD, 20 million South Africans (40% of the population) live in poverty – and 16% of those people are of an age when they could, and should, be in post-school education.

These young people are trapped in, and adding to, the poverty cycle. For these youth, with the exception of a small minority of ‘entrepreneurs’, the only successful way out of the trap is better educational opportunities.

A plethora of policies

Three important government documents with a bearing on the post-school sector and its development – all referring extensively to the 2009 report – were released by the government during 2011. All of them highlighted the importance of education and training and commented on how these systems should be effected.

They are the Department of Higher Education and Training’s (DHET) Strategic Plan for Higher Education and Training 2010-15, the New Growth Path published by the Economic Development Department, and the National Planning Commission’s National Development Plan 2030.

Early in 2012 a fourth policy document, the Green Paper for Post-school Education and Training, was released by the DHET. Once debated and revised, the Green Paper will be passed as an act of parliament, and will become the mechanism through which changes will be effected.

In addition, The Position Paper on an Extended Post-school Education System was produced in 2011 by Higher Education South Africa, the association of university vice-chancellors.

It set out the consensus position of vice-chancellors – namely that universities have two central roles to play in relation to the rest of the post-school system: (1) human resources and curriculum development; and (2) targeted partnerships that can lead, in a diversity of ways, to greater articulation within the post-school sector as a whole.

South Africa is thus currently considering a significant range of ideas and new strongly promoted policy proposals.

These are likely to have a major impact on what needs to be done to provide the best educational opportunities for young (and not so young) South Africans and, more especially, to provide access to post-school education for poor young South Africans, the majority of whom are women and the vast majority of whom are black.

The four documents carry similar, although not identical, messages. Their main designs for the future of the post-school education sector are as follows:
  • • The university sector must be expanded (two new universities are to be created in the two provinces that currently do not have universities).
  • • This implies that even more postgraduate students will have to be enrolled and encouraged to work in academia – against the reality of an impending shortage of academics with PhDs. It also implies that students who graduate with masters and doctoral degrees will have to be of a high quality. The target is to shift the current PhD production rate from 28 graduates per million per year to 100 graduates per million per year by 2030.
  • • Universities need to be positioned to play their role in the ‘knowledge economy’ and to fulfil their roles as critical drivers of social and economic development – and employment.
  • • Universities must become the core of a national system of innovation.
  • • Universities need to contribute to the faster growth of a ‘green economy’.
  • • The goal for cohort enrolment in universities must grow from the current mean rate of 17% to a mean rate of 30% by 2030.
  • • The FET sub-sector must be expanded and strengthened in terms of its capacity, quality, curriculum development and successful teaching and learning, and thus also in terms of throughput rates. FET colleges currently have extremely low success rates – on average around 20% of all students who enter ever qualify. In some institutions, the throughput rate is as low as 4%.
  • • The college sub-sector must become both more diverse and differentiated, but at the same time more integrated and coherent – and this means that well-defined and well-understood routes of articulation between all the sub-sectors of the post-school system (including universities) must be created and sustained.
  • • Enrolment must grow from the current level of 400,000 to one million by 2014 – a growth of 300% in two years – without losing sight of the need for quality and success.
  • • Students must be supported as they navigate their way between sub-sectors of the post-school system.
  • • New kinds of post-school institutions, such as community education and training centres, will be created at the post-school pre-university level.
  • • In terms of the government’s controversial proposed youth wage subsidy, international evidence shows that such a wage subsidy must be supplemented by training to be effective.
The problem of implementation

While the goals and targets articulated in the policy documents are valuable, even noble, and relevant to the country’s needs, it could be argued that there are significant implementation problems embedded in each.

These vary from unmotivated projections of FET growth from 400,000 to one million in less than three years, to a tripling of high-quality doctorates in less than 20 years.

Paradoxically this latter projection is less likely than the former to come to pass: doctoral graduate production has been static for the past decade, and the document is silent about how this trend could be changed.

What is undoubtedly positive in these documents is a certain convergence of vision in the projections of an expanding post-school higher education system, with substantial growth at the college level, the importance of preparing students for a knowledge economy and the hope, at least, for an articulated, coordinated and differentiated system.

This is indeed a radical departure from the earlier post-apartheid vision. However, what has remained is an over-inclusive checklist approach to reform planning characteristic of South Africa’s post-apartheid reform thinking.

Unless policy prescriptions begin to push in a reflective and realistic direction, South Africa is doomed to the now depressingly familiar cycle of policy optimism followed by implementation despair.

* Professor Nico Cloete is director of the Centre for Higher Education Transformation (CHET), extraordinary professor of higher education at the University of the Western Cape, visiting professor in the Erasmus Mundus Masters Programme in Higher Education at the University of Oslo, and honorary research fellow at the University of Cape Town. Dr John Butler-Adam is Program Officer: Post-Secondary and Higher Education at the Ford Foundation’s Office for Southern Africa, former chief executive of a consortium of eight higher education institutions in KwaZulu-Natal and former deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of Durban-Westville.

* This article is based on the introduction to Shaping the Future of South Africa’s Youth: Rethinking post-school education and skills training, edited by Helene Perold, Nico Cloete and Joy Papier and recently published by African Minds for CHET, the Ford Foundation, FETI and SALDRU.