Prospective students wishing to register for courses at Capricorn TVET College in Polokwane in January formed long queues in the Peter Mokaba Stadium to get registered. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE
Prospective students wishing to register for courses at Capricorn TVET College in Polokwane in January formed long queues in the Peter Mokaba Stadium to get registered. Picture: ANTONIO MUCHAVE

As SA holds its breath to find out how Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba plans to fund free higher education when he delivers his budget speech on Wednesday, it is important not to lose focus on the key issues facing the education system. How will increased access to education translate into increased employment to drive growth?

The issue of equal opportunity in higher education has rightly been brought to the fore by the Fees Must Fall movement and former president Jacob Zuma’s subsequent announcement of free higher education for poor and working-class students. He later clarified his definition of these students as "currently enrolled" technical and vocational education and training (TVET) college or university students "from South African households with a combined annual income of up to R350‚000".

Participation in higher education is an important marker for SA as it seeks to tackle its skills challenges. However, participation is not enough. Discussions need to include how to ensure higher education is of high quality and delivers the right skills to drive growth.

Vocational training is a critical piece of the skills puzzle as it can help to deliver key skills required by the labour market. Another layer of the discussion centres on improving basic education, which underpins the entire education system.

Education and skills are pressing problems — SA needs to take urgent action to combat unemployment. It has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world (at 55.9%) and a decreasing labour absorption rate (proportion of the working-age population that is employed), which has fallen from 45.8% in 2001 to 43.3% in 2017. Currently, 55% of the population (30.4-million people) live below the poverty line. SA needs to bring vocational training into the spotlight as part of the higher education debate.

Getting Skills Right: SA, a recently released report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and supported by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, flags the need to boost the number and quality of teachers in SA. Specifically, educators in the TVET environment need to be better equipped to teach skills that are relevant in the workplace to make the TVET system more responsive to labour market needs.

Education headlines in SA tend to focus on basic education and, in the past few years, tertiary education in the form of university access. However, the largely ignored TVET system can play a vital role in the country’s economy.

The government has noted that vocational education can help fill skill gaps, boost productivity and business growth and increase employment. Yet it attracts little attention.

In October 2017, after the release of the auditor-general’s 2016-17 report on the Department of Higher Education and Training, the deputy director-general responsible for TVET colleges, Firoz Patel, acknowledged that SA’s colleges have been neglected.

In 2014 over 2-million students were enrolled in South African post-secondary school education and training, and this number has risen steadily. Though most of these students (51%) were enrolled in higher-education institutions, 36% were in TVET colleges.

For vocational training to play a meaningful role in solving skills shortages and unemployment, there needs to be better alignment between the TVET system and the practices and needs of the workplace

Though participation in technical and vocational training is increasing (its share in total post-secondary school education and training increased by 12 percentage points from 2010 to 2014), Getting Skills Right: SA notes that vocational education is generally seen as low quality.

The report stresses that one of the reasons for the poor quality of the country’s vocational training is that teachers in TVET colleges lack practical knowledge, and subjects and technologies taught are often outdated. Consequently, whereas vocational training should prepare students for working life, employers report that vocational graduates lack workplace skills and experience.

For vocational training to play a meaningful role in solving skills shortages and unemployment, there needs to be better alignment between the TVET system and the practices and needs of the workplace, and teachers need to be involved with continuous training to keep their skills up to date.

Unfortunately, there is limited provision for continuous professional development of TVET teachers. SA can boost the quality and outcomes of TVET education for educators by providing access to training that is responsive to local needs.

SA needs better feedback loops between TVET colleges and industry to ensure that vocational training curricula remain relevant. Therefore, it is important to involve employers at every step of the value chain to ensure vocational training meets workplace requirements.

The relationship between employers and training providers should be improved, possibly by strengthening the role of the sector education and training authorities as intermediaries and by creating platforms for co-operation.

This will allow employers to communicate directly with training providers on local skill needs. By creating close links with employers, training institutions would find it easier to accommodate demand for workplace learning.

Business also needs to be encouraged to support TVET. While the discretionary part of the skills development levy can already be used for funding learnerships and special tax incentives have been developed, further incentives for employers might be necessary to create sufficient workplace learning opportunities, especially within small and medium enterprises.

Currently, among students, parents, teachers and employers TVET unfortunately takes second place to general education. This makes it hard to recruit skilled TVET teachers, fill institutions and place graduates.

The government is aware of the challenge and in its National Development Plan outlines various objectives and strategies, including producing 30,000 artisans a year, strengthening and expanding the bursaries for teacher training, building a stronger relationship between the college sector and industry and ensuring that all financially needy students have access to appropriate funding.

In addition, SA should perhaps take a leaf out of Germany’s book, where vocational education and training is widely respected. In Germany, high school students can choose at the end of compulsory education to pursue academic upper-secondary education or follow a vocational path.

The latter can be done at full-time vocational schools or in the dual apprenticeship system (where students divide their time between workplace training and training at vocational schools, receiving both general and occupation-specific education). In 2014, 48% of German upper-secondary students were enrolled in vocational programmes, of which 86% were in the dual-based system (OECD Education Database).

Employers, through the economic chambers, have a strong role in vocational education, complemented by significant government involvement (ensuring the system is not manipulated by short-term employer needs).

To ensure quality, the government develops and regularly updates standardised and binding national training curricula. Job quality is guaranteed through apprenticeship contracts with collectively agreed wages. Because of strong employer involvement, vocational programmes can easily adapt to local needs, and funding of the dual system is split between employers and government (OECD, 2010).

While an exact replica of this system would probably not work in SA, some of its elements certainly might.

It is also important that TVET should not only develop high-level technical skills but also invest in basic and transversal skills development, such as critical thinking and problem solving. These skills are in short supply in SA, according to the new OECD estimates of skill gaps (see the OECD Skills for Jobs Indicators).

Overarching education reforms in SA, especially to improve the quality of basic education, will also help to make changes in the TVET environment more effective and support vocational training in playing a more central role in solving the country’s skills gaps and unemployment.

• Ho is head of Europe, Middle East and Africa for the JPMorgan Chase Foundation and Keese is head of the skills and employability division: OECD.