Defend Truth


Council for Higher Education’s unacceptable war against the poor may be ending


John Aitchison is a Professor Emeritus of Adult Education and a previous head of the School of Education at the Pietermaritzburg campus of the University of KwaZulu-Natal. He was one of the founders of the Theological Education by Extension College.

We currently have a system whose rules and regulations make it devilishly hard for a poor person with a less than advantageous educational background to access higher education. This favours an elite set of increasingly commercialised institutions, public and private.

One of the supposed glories of the new post-apartheid education and training system was its National Qualifications System which was to bring order to the types of nationally recognised qualifications and, above all, promote access and opportunity to the previously disadvantaged, whether young or adult, at all levels, from basic to higher education.

With respect to higher education, the 1997 Education White Paper 3 stated that higher education has to provide lifelong learning opportunities and “open its doors, in the spirit of lifelong learning, to workers and professionals in pursuit of multi-skilling and reskilling, and adult learners whose access to higher education had been thwarted in the past”.

Well, what did we end up with? A system whose rules and regulations made it devilishly hard for a poor person with a less than advantageous educational background to access higher education. Of this, I can only speak from my experience as an academic who has worked in adult education, school education and theological education and who has had dealings with the Council for Higher Education (which handles the Higher Education component of the National Qualifications Framework).

But first, a small vignette of how a flexible qualifications framework can work in a genuine way to promote access and portability:

I am observing a class in a primary school in a small English town. There are about 45 children in the large lower-grades classroom and one teacher. Sounds like South Africa. But no, there are four young (late twenties or early thirties) women assistants helping that teacher. They all had children soon after early marriage and want to start a career now that their own children are at school.

None of them had been able to go to university. They are all studying for a Certificate in Education. Some will do it in a year, some over two years part-time. They will have a real qualification. Then they will study for a diploma. That takes another year (they get full credit for the certificate). Finally, after another year of study they get the degree (they will get full credit for the diploma). Simple, logical, and they come out with real practical experience and a basic degree.

This is not allowed by the Council for Higher Education (CHE) in South Africa. It used to be allowed but is currently prohibited.

War on the poor

Take the case of the University of South Africa’s (Unisa) groundbreaking work in adult education qualifications in the late 1990s. They initiated an ABET Higher Certificate in Adult Basic Education (remember the glorious new Constitution made adult basic education a constitutional right so teachers needed to be provided to deliver on that right).

This certificate was identical to the first year of a Diploma in Adult Basic Education. So if you cracked the certificate you could continue into a diploma. If you thought you could not handle the next level, you at least had a real qualification (albeit a minor one — but it enabled thousands of young people to get eight years of stipendiary payment as tutors in the Kha ri gude literacy campaign.

If you were a poor person at least you were gambling with only one year of fees, whereas if you had enrolled for a diploma or degree and dropped out you came away with nothing, even after several years of study.

Then the CHE prohibited such credit accumulation. It expressed its abhorrence of the genuine credit accumulation and transfer which is essential for working people who may take a long time to gear up to the rigours of higher-level education (such as starting at higher certificate level moving into a diploma and then maybe a degree).

The latest version of the ban is laid out in their Policies on the  Recognition of Prior Learning, Credit Accumulation and Transfer, and Assessment in Higher Education published in 2016.

Next, taking the Unisa example further, you can only carry 50% of the higher certificate into the diploma and literally have to restudy the other 50% of identical courses you had already passed.

Read more in Daily Maverick: It’s not rocket science — our deficient education system reinforces social and economic inequality

Another example, this one from theological education. The Theological Education by Extension College (TEE College) is a distance-education institution which serves all the main South African denominations. They used to offer a diploma and degree which shared, in the first year, a common set of National Qualification Framework level 5 courses (or modules as educational bureaucrats now insist on calling them).

Depending on achievement, the student could continue either on the diploma (then a two-year programme exiting at NQF level 6) or the Bachelor of Theology (a three-year programme exiting at NQF level 7). 

The CHE regard this as a “nested” programme and in 2009 the institution was required to shut down the diploma and “common core”, and stop this type of transfer between programmes. “Students must finish the programme they start.” Needless to say, this increased dropouts on those who start the degree (but who could have managed at diploma level), and frustrated diploma students who were excelling but who could not now transfer to a degree.

Because such qualifications as adult education and theological education higher certificates, diplomas and degrees tend to be taken by people who are adults and often poorer adults (or are people who are going to be working with disadvantaged communities), these restrictions are onerous and block access to the very people who need access the most.

But there are further blockages from the university institutions. Distance education institutions such as Unisa and TEE College have students who take time. For example, in 2021, the TEE College higher certificate graduates took an average of four years to complete the nominally two-year part-time programme, seven years to do the diploma (a six-year part-time qualification) and six-and-a-half years for the degree.

But the CHE pushes for a “times two plus two” time limit. That would make the fourth year the cut-off for certificates and the eighth year the cut-off for degrees and diplomas. Currently, about 37% of certificate students take longer as do 19% of diploma students and 24% of degree students. Goodbye to them.

It gets worse when it comes to Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL) which the education policy-makers have been bleating on about for years to little effect. Adult students didn’t stop learning after their last officially issued qualification and have often gained informal and non-formal skills and experience since. A mechanism for these learners to be RPL-ed has never been instituted. These skills need to be tested for both integrity and for the sake of a student who might over-reach. Well, higher education has made it clear: “we don’t want masses of them, please!”

The CHE has this rule: not more than 10% of a cohort of students in a higher education programme should be admitted through an RPL process.

For adult education this is madness, and a disconnect with the reality of adult learners.

One could go on. What about for instance the rules that effectively make it administratively and financially impossible to have volunteer local tutors for students in rural areas?

Silver linings

But now for the good news. Is the CHE about to change this dire situation? Is the discrimination against the underclasses in education about to end?

Hidden in the voluminous (over 200 pages) of ruminations on theory and practice of the (draft) Report of the Review of the Higher Education Qualifications Sub-Framework (HEQSF) of 21 August 2022 are several recommendations to adopt a more credit-accumulation and RPL-friendly approach.

For example, they accept (p17) that the current rules on progression and articulation are a problem: “despite the claims made regarding the role of the NQF in enabling the transfer of credits at the same NQF levels, articulation remains very challenging.”

They accept (p77) the need for “qualification design where a qualification spans multiple NQF levels — for example, in a 360-credit Bachelor’s Degree — students need to acquire successfully substantive content in a knowledge area or field at NQF Level 5 to enable them to engage successfully with content in the same knowledge area/field at NQF 6. The same principle holds for the progression from NQF 6 to NQF 7”.

They also firmly recommend the allowance of embedded qualifications (p164): “the Higher Education Qualification sub-framework should not prohibit an embedded approach to the offering of qualifications; for example, Higher Certificates and Diplomas. Academic judgements should be made about what would be deemed appropriate with due consideration of the level, structure, purpose and curriculum coherence of the qualification types. Requiring students to repeat content already covered cannot be justified educationally.

“Early exit qualifications from a higher level qualification type to a lower level one for individuals should be allowed but only where (a) this does not compromise the integrity and coherence of the curriculum of the higher academic qualification, (b) the purposes of the two qualification types are broadly aligned, (c) where students have completed all the requirements for the lower level qualification (for example, a Postgraduate Diploma can be awarded for an early exit from a Master’s) and (d) where both qualifications form part of the institution’s approved Programme and Qualification mix.”

The report also recommends that credit for more than 50% of a preceding qualification could be given (however cautiously this recommendation is expressed) (p167): “The current 50% rule related to the maximum credits that can be awarded for Credit Accumulation and Transfer (CAT) should be treated as a guideline, thereby allowing the receiving institution to assess the learning outcomes achieved, the volume of learning completed, as well as the assessment methods and any other relevant information related to the individual’s circumstances, to decide whether to allow a credit transfer of more than 50% of the receiving programme’s credits. Such cases should be subject to the approval by institutional governance structures, namely Faculty Boards and ultimately Senate.”

Finally, the ridiculous 10% only RPL requirement would be abolished (p167): “The 10% restriction on the number of students (CHE, 2016) admitted to qualifications via RPL should be removed. Senates should have the responsibility to monitor admissions on the basis of RPL to ensure that appropriate forms of curriculum design, pedagogy and support are in place to take account of particular needs of RPL students where necessary. Senate will also need to ensure that appropriate and thorough forms of assessment are undertaken before approving the granting of credits on the basis of RPL.”

If all these were to be approved it would be a great breakthrough. 

The reality is that the current CHE regulations protect an elite set of increasingly commercialised institutions, public and private. The public ones are hog-tied into a set of arrangements related to subsidies for quick throughput of students and kickbacks for lots of publications and PhD graduates. They have little interest in the poor of the land.

May this change. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Sioux McKenna says:

    The lack of flexibility in the system is starkly highlighted in this important piece. As an aside, can I commend the author, Prof Aitchison, for the term ‘kickbacks’ in relation to publications.

  • Moraig Peden says:

    This article provides a guiding light for upskilling poor South Africans at the same time reducing students being paralyzed by debt. The English example is inspiring.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

MavericKids vol 3

How can a child learn to read if they don't have a book?

81% of South African children aged 10 can't read for meaning. You can help by pre-ordering a copy of MavericKids.

For every copy sold we will donate a copy to Gift of The Givers for children in need of reading support.