Why SA colleges urgently need curriculum reform

2020-02-12 22:00

SA needs to improve colleges’ funding and infrastructure to make them the first choice for vocational skills training, writes Stanley Ncobela

Now that registrations for the new academic year are done, the institutions of higher learning continue to face growing challenges – from the shortage of on campus student accommodation to scrambling to keep up with the large number of applications.

Some hopefuls’ dreams were shattered because of limited spaces or they didn’t meet the admission requirements.

The most catastrophic challenge in higher education has been the wave of student protests that have swept across universities.

These protests, coupled with the criminal vandalism of university and public properties and the disruption of academic activities, require capable government and effective campus management.

Dealing proactively with the challenges confronting students and adopting comprehensive approaches to violence is the only way to go.

While we continue to witness the chaos and ghastly mayhem that put the higher education sector at a precarious crossroads, we must also acknowledge the challenges faced by the technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges.

We should try to understand how the college landscape in this country is recapitalised and restructured to improve its image with programmes and a qualifications mix that meet the needs of the job market.

Perhaps, we need to think deeply about how the colleges’ curriculums should respond to the job market needs and what measures should be put in place to mitigate barriers on the curriculum responsiveness to the increasingly competitive labour market.

Five years after the publication of the department of higher education and training’s White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, there is little tangible progress to review and rationalise the entire scope of vocational training programmes and qualifications.

That there have been problems of implementation is clear, but the reasons for this deserve closer examination.

Though access to the TVET programmes is relatively affordable, with lower fees and other charges because of the concessions and exemptions for low income groups, these colleges are still perceived as institutions of last resort.

The slow and uncertain pace of policy implementation points to a more fundamental problem of the cumulative deficits of years of under-investment and a failure to commit the financial resources needed to deliver on the promises of the white paper.

There is consensus that, to effectively achieve strategic policy objectives of the white paper on the TVET colleges sector, government needs to rethink many of its current approaches on the delivery of vocational and occupational skills.

This is crucial in order for us to respond to the large numbers of unemployed youths, particularly those who fall in the “neither in the labour force nor in the education or training” category and to the sluggish economic growth and development.

The gaps between colleges and universities are substantially higher in terms of quality of provision, investment and funding.

These widening gaps are a clear sign that the college terrain is still lagging in many respects as it faces crippling budget shortfalls.

It also appears to predominantly operate in a separate system within the broad higher education sector.

The TVET college sector was not yet developed along as clear a path as the university sector has.

Understanding of the best vocational structure has shifted over time and all attempts to ensure sufficient artisans and technically trained students with modern and high-tech academic mainstream programmes are moving at a snail’s pace.

Most matriculants who jostled in snaking queues in a desperate attempt to access quality higher education and training, still view the TVET colleges as a less prestigious career option compared to a university education.

This is one of the reasons South Africa has very few people with vocational skills compared with other developing countries.

Though access to the TVET programmes is relatively affordable, with lower fees and other charges because of the concessions and exemptions for low income groups, these colleges are still perceived as institutions of last resort.

The wide range of academic programmes and the qualifications mix that are poorly articulated – some of which have already fallen far short of quality measures – are not necessarily matched with standards of provision, hampering student mobility.

This leads to high levels of inefficiency.

With the emergence of a new skills revolution, the structures and arrangements needed will require sustained investment on work-oriented programmes that meet industry standards and effective policy implementation in the TVET colleges.

This will necessitate more realistic views on appropriate professional lecturer training programmes to improve the quality of throughput rates, teaching and learning.

An efficient and appropriate salary structure for the TVET lecturers should be considered as well as the strengthening of governance and management in the college system.

Injecting more investment will elevate physical and technological infrastructure while plugging the funding gaps.

This will demonstrate our unwavering commitments to the long-term growth and expansion of the college sector.

The TVET colleges and government will need to engage with employers, not only to build pragmatic relationships, but also to intensify true participation as key stakeholders in the quest to bring the new kinds of vocational and occupational programmes required by economy.

We need instructional programmes to replace the National Accredited Technical Education diploma (Nated) subject offerings as they are no longer relevant.

We also need to ensure that training levies are effectively utilised.

This will help us develop a vibrant, responsible and responsive public TVET college sector to meet current and future skills needs.

Widening participation and the expansion of the colleges sector will need to be underpinned by economies of scale and a sustainable drive for quality and efficiency.

Developing a college landscape to become globally competitive may not be an easy task.

It requires the involvement of experts, government and all key stakeholders.

Industries should also be included to ensure quality, credibility and relevance of offerings, standards of provision and outcomes.

To build strong, inclusive and responsive TVET colleges as institutions of choice, new ways need to be formulated with the department of higher education for:

  • Increasing the pass rate from 40% to at least 50% while also transfiguring the entire national certificate (vocational) courses and Nated programme with more adequate, effective and new-fangled kinds of pre- and post-matric courses;
  • Developing appropriate pedagogy that would academically and occupationally smooth the pathways into world of work;
  • Providing a national diploma prior to or without seeking the 18-month in-service training as currently required. Doing so would make life much easier for students to join the labour force;
  • Developing post-matric qualifications to have at least 360 credits, which would automatically take three years of full-time study. I think such a move would improve the status of the TVET colleges and also provide students with a pathway for furthering their postgraduate studies;
  • Dismantling academic barriers and barricades of college exit routes, whether to higher learning or the workforce; and
  • Developing vocational qualifications that give general eligibility for polytechnic and higher education studies.

This is long overdue.

The renewal and modernisation of these colleges cannot be further delayed. Nor can it be left to chance.

If South Africa fails to inject sufficient investments into capacity building, urgently respond to ageing infrastructure, get rid of obsolete qualification programmes and do something about the poor linkages with employers, colleges will continue to be the Achilles heel of the higher education terrain.

Ncobela is a lecturer and columnist

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February 23 2020