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Higher education and training: Four ideas to help South Africa reimagine its skills sector


Professor Glen Mills is Emeritus Professor of Sustainable Built Environments, University of Lincoln, England.

If the ANC government cannot, or will not, step up to the challenge, this is the moment for industry players and tertiary institutions to seize the initiative and demonstrate dynamic leadership.

First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.

That there are so many talented people who cannot be absorbed into the workplace shows that the ANC government lacks vision and leadership. It also shows that our higher education and training system is broken and needs to be fixed – quickly.

Having been a senior academic at universities in SA, the UK and the US for many years, I’d like to share a few thoughts on a way ahead. These ideas are not new, having been in circulation for some years, both in SA and elsewhere.

  1. Skew the Higher Education/Further Education and Training (HE/FET) budget significantly in favour of the FET sector. This will emphasise the value of technical knowledge and skills the economy needs for growth. There are too many students enrolled for university degrees that are pretty worthless in a rapidly changing job market. What SA’s emerging economy needs are technically competent young people who can get the job done, a workforce trained in a wide range of technical trades: electricians, plumbers, website developers, boilermakers, bricklayers, computer technicians, carpenters, auto mechanics, aircraft technicians, medical technicians, to name a few.
  2. Scrap the Sector Education and Training Authorities, which have never worked. Go back to the apprenticeship model: it works well in some of the world’s most highly developed economies. The private sector and government must hammer home the benefits of the earn-as-you-learn approach. The apprenticeship system enables controlled and flexible on-the-job training at the workplace, complemented by theoretical studies in tertiary institutions. Now is the time for the private sector and government to intensify support for tertiary colleges (technical, agricultural, teaching and nursing), which were hoovered up or have taken a back seat to universities during the past 25 years or so.
  3. The apprenticeship model does not apply only to tertiary colleges. Apprenticeships also work well in disciplines taught in traditional universities, such as engineering, computer science, architecture, business administration, pharmacology, land surveying, social work, accountancy, and so on. Giving students the choice of earning a university degree by apprenticeship or by the traditional full-time route is becoming the norm in the UK and the EU. In these countries the apprenticeship route is strongly advocated by both business and governments as a valuable and viable way to get a degree.
  4. In SA the government needs to incentivise the formation of sustainable partnerships between universities and colleges, on the one hand, and industry players on the other. For example, at the UK’s University of Lincoln, one of the biggest employers in the region, the engineering conglomerate Siemens occupies and shares with the School of Engineering a large building on campus. A strong working relationship means both parties get the benefit of sharing sophisticated kit and expensive laboratories. They also benefit from the knowledge transfer that flows in both directions. This is ideal for degree apprenticeships and internships, and provides a model for seamless partnerships between industry and academia.

SA industry players, as well as colleges and universities, stand to benefit from coalitions that offer apprenticeship-based education and training – as will the economy.

If the ANC government cannot, or will not, step up to the challenge of reimagining the HE/FET sector, this is the moment for industry players and tertiary institutions to seize the initiative and demonstrate dynamic leadership. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.


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All Comments 6

  • We should make space for Glen in a future ministry of education . . .His suggestion of going back to a system that works also provides employment and creates technically competent people for economic and industrial growth.

  • You have forgotten that after the achievement of democracy in South Africa the new government closed the nursing training colleges, teacher training colleges and a police training college. This was a struggle for freedom.

  • I could not agree more with prof Glen Mills. I used to be a Vocational Education Specialist and member of the SAQA Board for three consecutive periods. I also was part of the founding group if the ETDP Seta in my capacity as a private provider of education. Workplace learning was very high on the agenda at one stage in the early years of this century, but pressure from the academic (tertiary) sector against the idea of getting high levels of learning through one’s occupation/ vocation was overwelming. Get Glen into the Department of Higher Education to work his ideas into the system. We need to put much more effort and money into Vocational Education and Training up to the highest levels.

  • Spot on Prof Mills. Our South African educational pyramid is upside down, compared to industry demand. In contrast, 2/3 of German school leavers do ‘dual-education’ paid apprenticeships while attending either college or university.
    That’s where the skills levy should be best utilised.

    A powerful place to seize initiative as individuals and corporates is WorldSkills International – biannual ‘Olympics’ of TVET skills, where industry, education, governments of 85 nations meet to showcase an amazing array of careers, benchmark standards and develop curricula, with corresponding equipment sponsored by companies.
    The inspiration among youth is palpable – running such competitions inter-college, inter-industry, provincial, national, continental… before reaching the international competitions – shifts minds and TVET enrollments more than any government policy or grant.
    The most amazing, passionate, industrial volunteering I’ve had the fortune to be part of…

    • …hosting WorldSkills International in South Africa will have an order of magnitude more impact to our economy and employment than the Football World Cup!

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