Government post-school reforms fail business – Report

The South African government’s extensive reforms to the skills development and training system over the past decade have failed to deliver adequate skills to business, according to a new report. The focus has been on building supply-side capacity such as sector skills councils and qualifications frameworks and grading, at the expense of actually producing graduates with the necessary skills.

According to Andre Kraak, a visiting associate professor at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, reforms that were meant to make college curricula more responsive to business needs, have instead reaped employer disillusionment.

Colleges and universities of technology must be better aligned with the government’s economic and industrial policy to provide intermediate level skills that are critical for sustaining growth of the economy.

Kraak wrote in the third edition of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation’s annual transformation audit, titled Breaking the Mould: Prospects for radical socio-economic transformation, that the government had largely ignored the private sector, which is instrumental in creating jobs for graduates of further education and training colleges.

The report was launched in Cape Town on 18 February.

Skills deficit is not a new problem. In 2011, South Africa's third National Skills Development Strategy noted that universities had higher enrolment and participation rates than the further education and training sector, and not nearly enough appropriately skilled and qualified people in disciplines central to socio-economic development were being produced by the post-school system.

“Middle class skills are important as they keep the economy running. Hospitals are not run by doctors alone, there are nurses and several other staff,” Kraak said.

Historical configurations

Historically colleges reserved for white people were in the cities near industry, and they played a significant role in training white artisans to work in mines and manufacturing plants through the apprenticeship model, said Kraak. The students were backed by the government and were easily absorbed by industry.

“The system worked in meeting the needs of the apartheid economy,” Kraak said.

Colleges for black people were in the ‘homelands’, away from sites of work. In 1994, when apartheid was abolished, a total of 152 colleges existed. The deracialisation of these colleges meant that they were flooded by black enrolments, up to 75%.

But there was a problem. The system had outdated curriculum which no employer supported, signalling the decline of the apprenticeship system that had supported white workers.

“These students had no work experience, no learnerships and they remain unemployed – about 70% of them have no job,” said Kraak.

South Africa borrowed its reforms from the United Kingdom, but it came with institutional weaknesses. The vast amounts of money spent on building national vocational training qualifications had not supplied enough graduates.

Tough new world

As society democratised, some of the benefits that institutions had enjoyed fell away. For instance, some had to scramble for funding. Although curriculum change was needed, the government only started to act in 2007 – it had been hamstrung by institutional and policy reforms.

The government introduced nine policies, which included the establishment of 50 further education and training, or FET, colleges out of the merger of 152 former technical colleges.

The old trade-oriented NATED or ‘N’ was replaced by the National Certificate (Vocational) or NCV from 2007-10, with the aim of improving the quality of teaching, strengthening links with industry and replacing old technology

New curricula were introduced, but lecturers were ill equipped to handle them. Many had no practical teaching component, and their skills were out of touch with developments in industry. There was lack of preparedness for how to teach multiracial students.

Further, Kraak said, tough curricula standards that were introduced with the new system meant more learners failed to meet vocational standards. The result was student bottlenecks in the system and poor completion rates.

According to the study, colleges were unable to grow new enrolments in 2010 because of the backlog of mature students needing to repeat failed subjects.

Kraak said many employers and vocational education specialists claimed the National Certificate (Vocational) was not adequately aligned to the needs of industry, and colleges were ill equipped to help students find workplace experience.

Studies to trace the employability of graduates have shown that there were graduates of FET colleges who stayed jobless for a long time. Thus, said the study, the new certificate did not represent a huge improvement over the old courses, “which were criticised precisely for the same reasons”.

Colleges had also failed to forge partnerships with other institutions, which had made them isolated, and failed to make inroads in finding work for graduates.

Fixing the problems

The report noted that the delivery of the post-school system was also affected by turf wars between the departments of Education and Labour over coordination efforts and human resource development.

“The animosity negatively affected the evolution of the FET college system during 2000, with policy imposed on FET from above. Employers were not consulted in any substantive way, and curriculum experts were completely ignored,” said the report.

It noted five flaws that have hindered the ability of the post-school system in South Africa to deliver:
  • • Neglect of the demand side – Supply-side skills are not sufficient. Reforms were based on supplying vocational skills while not changing the low skill and low wage business environment.
  • • Lack of employer buy-in – No actual employer was involved in determining the skills business wants.
  • • Statist models – The government imposing national skills policy frameworks on employers without their consent and buy-in.
  • • Absence of partnerships with the college sector – Failure to establish strong partnership in localised or regional settings through customised and specific tailored training packages, reflecting failure to meet demand side needs of the economy.
  • • Poor progression from voluntary education and training to higher education – graduates from FET colleges struggle to progress to universities.
Kraak suggested OECD and United States models as best practices of skills strategies that are driven by the demands of employers to improve the competitiveness of firms, that South Africa could learn from.

Ayanda Nyoka, project leader for inclusive economies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, said that if policy stakeholders were to seriously consider the recommendations in the research, it would likely have a positive impact on improving the employability of young people, particularly FET college graduates.

“I think it’s also important to reflect on the fact that an increasing number of young people are enrolling in FETs for the reason that many do not qualify for formal university entry, and so it is crucial that colleges effectively play their role as institutions that provide second choice pathways for such groups of young people to assist them to transition from school to work,” Nyoka told University World News.