EDUCATION & TRAINING OP-ED
TVET colleges need a radical overhaul to become centres of excellence
Technical vocational education and training colleges need to move from being ‘wannabe universities’ and corruption sinkholes to becoming centres whose graduates are coveted, skilled employees.
After the annual pageant of the announcement of the matriculation results, learners are often urged by experts to consider acquiring practical skills rather than only thinking of graduating with a degree from a university.
Some employers complain that universities impart only theoretical knowledge and insufficient practical skills. Others believe the investment in time and effort to train a technical vocational education and training (TVET) college graduate is too high.
These debates inevitably bring comparisons between TVET colleges and universities. These are not always helpful, and can be misleading for various reasons. Colleges and universities were never established to be alike.
Entry requirements are different. To enter a TVET college, one does not need to complete the matriculation examination with exemption, in certain instances. That is one of the major differences compared with university entrance, which often leads to the false conclusion that one institution is better than the other.
Entrants to both TVET colleges and universities qualify for financial assistance under the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS), budgeted at R49-billion in 2023.
For some in dire straits, NSFAS funds are viewed as an income stream for the family, with very little being spent by the student for study purposes. But that is a discussion for another day.
Ideally, vocational education should be carried out in collaboration with the Department of Higher Education and employers in industries directly involved in such programmes.
Sector Education and Training Authorities (Setas), with a budget of more than R1-billion in 2022, are expected to facilitate this involvement. However, the 21 Setas are top-heavy with high-salaried employees who have unconvincing records. As a result, some employers are subsidised to train TVET graduates despite this being the responsibility of Setas.
Read more in Daily Maverick: “NSFAS — the state bursary scheme at the root of SA students’ outcry in 2023“
The more recent trend in the 2021/22 financial year saw a drop of 36.5% in the number of students entering vocational training, despite an expenditure of more than R13-billion.
No real reason has been given for this sharp decline. Some speculation includes the lack of safe and secure student accommodation for learners from adjoining provinces and states.
Others believe that student and academic support services are non-existent for those who get demoralised once they fail. They are left on their own to puzzle their way out of their predicament.
Many parents have no confidence in TVET colleges, viewing them as opportunities for cadre deployment and patronage as the government extols their huge “successes”.
If one considers that more than 64% of our youth in 2021 were unemployed irrespective of whether they had a post-high school qualification or not, the seriousness of the situation becomes clear.
Recent statistics point to a university graduate as being more employable than a TVET graduate. In a society that is obsessed with the pomp and ceremony associated with university graduations, degrees have become the measure of success that most parents dream of.
Cinderellas of higher education
TVET colleges in South Africa have an uphill task of providing essential training and practical skills as students grapple with their life decisions on whether to attend “Cinderella” institutions or not.
The Department of Higher Education and Training has failed to create more public awareness of TVET colleges and their potential value to our societies.
The employment of more highly qualified, committed lecturers would go a long way to change public perception.
Although there has been growth in the number of TVET colleges (50, with more than 200 campuses) throughout South Africa, that has been hampered by lecturers without the necessary academic qualifications who are practical and industry experts.
Many institutions have been plagued by poor, underqualified, deployed management and rampant corruption where new principals hire “lecturers” from their home province, for example.
With large budgets to spend on procurement with little or no accountability, TVET colleges have become yet another site for corruption.
In addition, there are contradictions in the governance of TVET colleges. Members of the council are required to govern the college and to act in the best interest of that college but cannot be involved in the management of that institution.
For example, while the principal reports to the council, it does not have powers to discipline him or her for lack of accountability.
The council can only report him or her to the minister, actually to the deputy director general, for all employment purposes. For example, if the council is aware of the under- or non-performance of lecturers and corruption of the principal or management, it is unable to remedy the situation.
Some principals do not turn up at council meetings because they believe they are accountable to the minister or department only.
The minister does not attend TVET council meetings, so the site for accountability is far removed from the TVET college concerned.
Hapless members of council, despite being competent and well-intentioned, cannot intercede and act in the best interests of that college as the council’s fiduciary duty is compromised.
Some write to the minister, on a regular basis, about their concerns but receive no replies. That allows for large levels of corruption, unaccountability and mayhem, and therefore the notoriety that parents of students are fully aware of.
From the perspective of the staff, conditions of service for lecturers under contracts are precarious and the development of professionals is restricted by careerism and opportunism. Many employees in TVET colleges must moonlight to make ends meet.
Added to that is the lack of opportunity for upward mobility for lecturers and insufficient motivation for all. As a result the output is, unsurprisingly, less than satisfactory with a learning experience that is underwhelming and mediocre at best.
Employers, despite the available subsidy, are reluctant to take on graduates who require extensive time and effort to train.
The mere proliferation of TVET colleges, like universities, by itself is no real guarantee of quality education and training, or jobs for its graduates. No wonder some students regard TVET qualifications as a waste of time.
The requirement of an after-graduation, 18-month placement in industry is an obstacle to the young person eager to support their families.
On the other hand, feedback from employers indicates that placements should be increased to at least 24 months. A balance can be struck if graduates are allowed to complete the additional six months in full-time jobs if they are employed after 18 months of internship.
At the same time companies that create space for TVET graduates in their businesses should be better incentivised.
Swiss gold standard
The ideal situation is to have all TVET college programmes centred on workplace training. To date, Switzerland remains a global leader when it comes to vocational on-the-job training and employability. Its model is considered the gold standard.
Learners are provided with paid work while they study part-time in well-resourced institutions with the latest equipment staffed by highly qualified industry experts.
A part-time programme in South Africa, based on recognition of prior learning would prove very beneficial for those already employed who seek certificates from TVET colleges to reconnect their experience in their trades.
Perhaps we can take a leaf from our own, near-three-decade book of experiences in South Africa. It is not the number of universities or TVET colleges, like our numerous malfunctioning provinces and municipalities, that promise success. It is the quality of the service of such institutions. That is dependent on state-of-the-art equipment or machinery that the department has to date failed to provide.
If we reduce the number of TVET colleges with a view to providing only the best vocational training whose graduates are sought after by industry, we can choose the best principals and lecturers to lead and work in these institutions, with sufficient funds to resource them with the R13-billion needed.
If there were only 30, rather than 50, such colleges located close to industry, with adequate suitable student accommodation, student support and areas of speciality of each college, that would go a long way to re-establish and reimagine TVET colleges.
In addition, TVET councils should be empowered to act on the outputs, or lack thereof, of management at the local level rather than the referral to an already overwhelmed and unresponsive national department. After all, council members can suspend and bring a fellow council member to a disciplinary hearing, but not an errant lecturer.
A condition for the continued existence of TVET colleges should be unqualified audits each year.
Organs of state
At the same time, the minister should act against those who act in conflict of interest. Urgent training is required for members of council to adhere to national standards of ethics and practice in TVET councils.
The constitutional principles of providing an effective, transparent, accountable and coherent government applies to all organs of state – and TVET colleges are exactly that.
Within a limited period, the perception of TVET colleges should change with these obvious tweaks and any comparison with universities, where there are also many examples of poor ones, will be odious.
In that way a TVET college may not be a “wannabe university” but a centre for excellence for vocational training whose graduates could be coveted, skilled employees.
However, in the absence of a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of the TVET college system and Setas, the general public is not duped into believing that there is value for money in these institutions.
Many believe TVET colleges are costly examples of another failed government venture that is self-serving and vacuous. They are like the various state of the city, province or nation addresses attended by corpulent, garishly dressed and self-important individuals. Yet every citizen has daily exposure to the real state of affairs: rubbish piled high in the corners, with the acrid stench of broken sewer pipes amid yawning potholes.
A stark reminder of the emptiness of the promises of political leaders is expressed in Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
This is not the kind of success we imagine for our young people who languish in despair with little hope for a job. We call for an independent review of all TVET colleges to assess whether taxpayers’ money is best spent on these failing – some say failed – institutions. DM/MC
Dr Vinodh Jaichand is a former senior professor of law at Walter Sisulu University. He has also held the positions of dean of the School of Law at the University of the Witwatersrand, director of the International Human Rights Exchange at Wits, deputy director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the University of Galway in Ireland, national director of Lawyers for Human Rights, and dean of the Faculty of Law at the University of Durban-Westville.
Dr Mkhuseli Vimba is a legal consultant at Baneka Dalasile Attorneys and a chief executive officer of SYLM Economic Development and Research Projects. He is an Ingwe TVET College council member. He has held the positions of CEO of the Revelation Group, the head of employment of the Creation Fund at the Department of Trade and Industry, head of practice management at the Law Society of South Africa. He is a human rights lawyer and national coordinator of education and training at Lawyers for Human Rights. He has lectured at the University of Johannesburg and was a visiting lecturer of intellectual property and law of companies at Walter Sisulu University.