TVET student protests are the result of years of neglect

Colleges should not play second fiddle to universities

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Photo of student protest
Last year students at King Sabata Dalindyebo college in Elliotdale marched because of delayed exam results. Archive photo: Nombulelo Damba-Hendrik

The recent protests by students from Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges are the result of long years of neglect of these colleges which have always played second fiddle to the universities.

The challenges faced by these colleges were acknowledged in a government White Paper in 2013: poor governance and management, unqualified and underqualified lecturers, lack of adequate infrastructure and funding, poor programme differentiation and inadequate support for students.

There is general agreement in TVET circles that the establishment of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) has helped refocus and reposition the colleges. But many unresolved issues still affect the image and standing of TVETs in the eyes of the public.

At the start of each academic year, matriculants line up in their thousands to look for places at universities and only consider TVETs when they have no other alternative. This challenge is exacerbated by the perception of potential employers that students from TVETs are poor quality.

Poor certification rates, as low as 9.5% for the first cohort of National Certificate: Vocational (NCV) students in 2009, did not do much to help improve the perception of TVET college students nor did the lack of programme differentiation. Currently the NCV, a three year programme with a strong practical or vocational element, has been positioned as the key programme for TVET colleges as it allows for the integration of successful grade 9 students into the post-school system. However, because grade 9 students come out of the basic education system with gaps in their knowledge and thus struggle with the pressures of the NCV curriculum, most colleges prefer enrolling Grade 12 students in order to push up certification rates. Consequently, average certification rates across the three NCV levels increased to more than 40% by 2012.

The biggest enrolment has been in the N-courses (NATED) which are occupationally inclined but offer limited practical tuition. Neither the NATED nor the NCV programme can offer learners the practical experience they need, due to a lack of inadequate infrastructure like workshop equipment for engineering students and kitchen equipment for hospitality students.

This lack of practical experience combined with poor relationships with the business sector and the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) contribute to poor employment prospects for TVET students. Very few students from TVET colleges find employment, mostly because they have not been exposed to the workplace during their studies. Late issuing of certificates to those who successfully completed their studies, or failure to issue them at all, exacerbates this problem.

In spite of huge funding injections, particularly through the college grant allocation which increased from R3.3 billion in 2009 to about R5.8 billion in 2014, colleges still suffer huge funding shortfalls. The shortfalls were largely as a result of colleges enrolling more than their capacity in an effort to keep up with the ambitious enrolment targets of the DHET. Between 2010 and 2014, enrolment increased by 95% across the 50 TVET colleges and because of funding shortfalls, many of these students were unfunded, leaving colleges with historically high bad debts.

The National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) allocation has however ensured that students themselves could continue with free education, irrespective of the financial challenges faced by the institutions. There are obviously many challenges which directly affect learners in the administration of NSFAS mainly because of the colleges understanding and implementation the “Bursary rules and guidelines for the administration of NSFAS”.

Resolving these systemic challenges is key to improving the public standing of TVETs but this is only the first step. The colleges need to find their own identity and position in the broader post-schooling system. Colleges need to be technical centres of excellence which produce the critical intermediate or mid-level skills required by the economy, rather than being seen as alternatives to universities.

To achieve this, the colleges must resolve the “unintended” consequences of policy which places learners who are three years apart in terms of knowledge in the same class. This can be addressed by creating a foundation phase for NCV for weaker students, in order to prepare them for the demands of the curriculum. With properly trained lecturers, adequate infrastructure for practical and workplace integration for students during their studies, both the NCV and NATED programmes can become attractive to employers, thus improving the perception of college graduates. Colleges should identify programmes that address the needs of their communities and work closely with SETAs to train unemployed youth.

The students have every right to go on a nationwide protest, as they are the ones who will bear the brunt of unemployment. It is the responsibility of all those concerned to address the pending crisis.

Tyatya is an education specialist who has worked for organisations in the basic and higher education sectors.

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TOPICS:  Education

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