Hands-on skills development and good old-fashioned apprenticeships are what SA needs. Picture: SOWETAN
Hands-on skills development and good old-fashioned apprenticeships are what SA needs. Picture: SOWETAN

As SA’s universities are again overwhelmed by applicants at the start of year, we need to ask ourselves whether by following Britain’s educational model we are destroying our manufacturing base — just like them.

The Austin Motor Company. Austin-Healey Cars. Avro Manufacturing. Armstrong Siddley. Ascari Cars (seriously?). There is a wikipedia page called “defunct motor vehicle motor manufacturers of the UK”. It has 86 sub-pages for each of the 86 British car manufacturers that went out of business in relatively recent history.

And motor manufacturing was only one small part of what used to be the greatest industrial nation on earth.

Granted, the education system was only one reason behind this precipitous decline, but it was an important one. After the Second World War, a series of British education policies aimed to get as many children as possible university educated. The bulk of the government’s well-meaning efforts went into making university education available to all as a way of pushing the country forward, and over-turning Britain’s odious class system.

But one cannot have one’s educational cake, and also snack on it later. A consequence of this well-meant push towards expanding the university system and the numbers of students that passed through it meant that vocational or artisanal training suffered. Money was poured into the grammer school system and the newer “red brick” universities.

Decades later, the UK found itself chronically short of skilled labour and the manufacturing sector suffered as a result. Germany, on the other hand, followed a dramatically different path. Today, on leaving school, more than 50% of Germans enter dual vocational and educational training programmes (VET) as they make their way into the job market. Learners start these VET programmes while still at school.

Many of them leave the mainstream school system at 16 to follow this route to employment and job security. Apprenticeships are common and largely funded by German manufacturers hungry for skills.

The system benefits the individual, the manufacturing corporations and the country as a whole, so it is no wonder that even US President Donald Trump thinks it is a good idea. In June 2017, he signed an executive order called “Expanding apprenticeships in America” that seeks to increase the availability of vocational training programmes. Doubtless all part of a plan to make American manufacturing great again.

If a visionary such as Trump can see the wisdom of concentrating education efforts on copying the German rather than the British education model, maybe it is time that we took a second look the education system bequeathed to us by Britain. Are we, like the UK, in danger of undervaluing practical, artisanal skills that will enable young people to live economically secure lives and build SA’s manufacturing base?

SA’s Technical and Vocational Training (TVET) colleges are under-funded and unsought-after by students who have been taught that university education is the only way to progress. Our country’s manufacturing sector is already on it’s knees, so, as we move forward, perhaps we need to ask ourselves whether we want our industries to follow the example of BMW or the British Motor Manufacturing Corporation?

• Davenport is a writer and advertising executive.