South Africa: Raising higher education

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South Africa is planning a major overhaul of its higher education system, with a greater emphasis given to vocational training as a means to bridge the skills gap in the national economy. The government aims to achieve a six-fold increase in the number of places available at colleges by 2030, although the financial and human resources needed for such an effort are sizeable.

On January 12, the higher education and training minister, Blade Nzimande, unveiled a green paper outlining plans to massively revamp and expand the nation’s tertiary and vocational education system.

One of the key aims set out in the paper is to provide a diverse post-high school education system to meet the needs of South Africans between the ages of 18 and 24. Under the plan, the number of places at the university level would be increased from this year’s 890,000 to around 1.5m by 2030, necessitating large-scale investments in infrastructure, the recruitment of educational and ancillary staff, and a substantial increase in spending on student support.

It was in the area of vocational training that the green paper was most ambitious, however, proposing that some 4m South African students would be enrolled at further education and training (FET) facilities — well over six times the present level.

Currently, there are 50 multi-campus FET colleges around the country, which were formed by the merger of 152 technical colleges. The green paper proposes that every district would have its own post-school educational facility, many of which are already overcrowded, and that existing colleges would be greatly expanded.

It was vital to strengthen the role of vocational education and to change the perception that universities were the only option for further study, the minister said.

“The greatly expanded FET colleges sector is envisaged to play the central role in expanding the development of artisan and other mid-level skills for the economy,” Nzimande said. “Such skills are in extremely short supply.”

The paper also called for the development of stronger ties between vocational education and the needs of the economy. “They must develop close ties to workplaces in the public and private sectors, becoming responsive to the needs of the employers in their surrounding communities, and offering tailor-made programmes where possible in addition to their core programmes,” the paper said.

The proposals contained in the green paper will require the building of dozens of new colleges, all of which will need to be staffed. Added to this will be the cost of student support, with many of those attending FETs coming from lower-income families who may be unable to cover expenses. In 2011, bursaries to FET students amounted to $163m, a figure that could increase to almost $1bn annually if the government increases enrolment numbers by a factor of six.

While welcoming the proposals contained in the green paper, stating that the plan could help boost economic growth and stimulate job creation, Andricus van der Westhuizen, the higher education and training spokesman for the opposition Democratic Alliance, said details on how the scheme would be implemented and paid for needed to be made public.

“Proper systems of accountability must be set up to help make these goals a reality. The minister must also provide comprehensive details on how these plans will be funded,” he said soon after the draft policy’s release.

The government will also have to work not only to improve the standards of FET colleges but also do more to promote them as a viable alternative to university, said Seamus Needham, the research planning manager at the University of the Western Cape’s FET Institute, in a recent interview with national daily The Mail and Guardian.

“College is definitely a second-choice option for students, despite the fact that it provides very real employment opportunities,” he said, adding that one way of achieving this would be to shape courses so that they also provide meaningful routes into university, should students wish to take their studies to a higher level.

There will be many other issues the government will need to address, including improving school-level education and job creation, as even now many graduates struggle to find work.

While the intentions set out in the green paper are praiseworthy, and do address many of the pressing needs of the economy for skilled workers, it remains to be seen what the cost will be for the scheme, and whether the government can find the resources – both fiscal and human – to achieve the goals it has set itself.

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