Links between colleges, industry vital

Nowhere is complexity more evident than in the current attempts by the government to change the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) landscape which, in the choice phrasing of the minister of higher education and training, Blade Nzimande, reflects “forging dynamic strategic partnerships with industry”.

Fostering a new paradigm shift through an industry-led system within TVET context that anticipates a smaller set of strong, coordinated, expanded, and high quality TVET institutions with responsive curricula to such an increasingly competitive labour market is a daunting task especially considering long existing myriad challenges inundating the sector.  

We may lock in dispute over whether or not those strategic interventions taken recently at the two-day Colleges and Industry Partnership Summit in Cape Town will go beyond formulaic pieties but whatever the finer point of our argument – this summit was a thought-provoking and knowledge-building exercise bringing together dozens of government officials, agencies, policymakers, industry and relevant stakeholders to plumb the profundity of their minds in trying to find a sustainable solution. 

Furthermore, it was an opportunity to find a common position in reshaping TVET landscape and, bringing about new goals and plans that would address the crisis of skills deficits, unemployed graduates and strengthen ongoing college-industry relations. But as a matter of routine, it also presented many fundamental and structural problems to the system and major barricades to the achievement of college-industry policy.

Apart from colleges having intricacy to grasp the nettle as they are highly unlikely to be autonomous or to take any policy decision without government directions, an attempt to form closer links with industry is not new. 

In the recent decades, there has been a tight connection between businesses and the college sector which was closely intertwined as a requisite to enhance employment prospects for students. These relations were best demonstrated in the apprenticeship or artisan development system and also in the national accredited technical education diploma (Nated) programmes, where college graduates could be exposed to theoretical, practical and workplace knowledge so as to easily gain access to the job market without difficulty. 

But, as a result of neglect to configure the college system and a failure to have well-formulated plans and strategies to regularly monitor and rigorously evaluate the relevance and quality of college curricula to meet the increasing demands of the economy, these ties gradually dwindled away and sharply shunned aid putting Nated graduates and apprentices in jeopardy in terms of finding opportunities for workplace training. 

Subsequently, the ministry of higher education and training, issued a practical document – work integrated learning in TVET colleges which sought to revitalise college-work transitions by developing a common understanding of work integrated learning and most notably, establishing standards for its provision within vocational and occupational training programmes.

This document resonated with the vision of the white paper for post school education and training – this, it suggests – “TVET colleges must develop and maintain close working relationships with employers in their areas. Close partnerships between colleges and employers can assist the colleges in locating workplace opportunities for students who need practical experience.”

Regrettably, this practical guide has never gained significant traction in the sector due to a number of complex reasons including among others, lack of support from the department and the demands it imposed amid resource constraints, dilapidated infrastructure and poor capacity in some dysfunctional colleges to implement it.

Despite unclear policy over the college-industry system, there is no doubt, these linkages will pave a new direction to consolidate and facilitate the various forms of work-integrated learning which would, in turn, lead to more job placements for TVET graduates.

However, as often said, all that glitters may not be perceived as gold by everyone. The fact that the department is still hesitant to phase out Nated programmes altogether is a gory reminder of the extent to which challenges in transfiguring college curricula have taken form as one of the major aspects of inefficiency in the system. 

Poor curriculum alignment with economic priorities, weak linkages with industry and mismatch between skills demanded by the employers and skills supplied by TVET institutions are among the major contributors to unemployed college graduates. 

Commendable as it was, the stance taken by the department to review and update programmes, qualifications and phase-out outdated Report 191 programmes – N1-N3 is of cordial importance but many people would agree that for college-industry partnership to gain impetus – the likelihood of success – department must remove the entire Nated programmes as they continue causing the sector teetering on the edge. 

Quite frankly, N-courses have made the disenchanted TVET graduates to be at the receiving end of economic ostracism and becoming spectators in the job market amid sluggish economic growth and youth unemployment that has already reached staggering proportions.

To a very considerable extent, these programmes have tremendously damaged the image of the sector as they have already fallen far short of quality barometers and unwittingly created blockages in various learning pathways. It must be borne in mind that, no matter how much measures can be put in place to sufficiently update and convert them remotely, Report 191 programmes are poorly articulated, not appropriately match with the standards of provision, hampering student mobility and leading to high levels of inefficacy.

Interestingly, in 2009, a solid foundation was laid in the gazette to phase them out because they were already in a worse state, sadly, such a move never attained true fruition.

Keeping outdated Nated programmes and N6 National Diploma qualifications will proceed in making the college band to be considerably stunted and negatively affect its development trajectory. 

Needless to say, no one can deny that, for the past 25 years, Report 191 instructional offerings contributed immensely to the full personal developments of youth and adults in this country, more strongly to redress the injustices of the past, provided opportunities for lifelong learning and enabled students to progressively obtain post-matric technical and academic qualifications of N4- N6 mainstream programmes. 

However, the rapid globalisation, tremendous impacts of information technology, and the huge transformation towards a knowledge-driven economy are bringing forth distinct challenges and enormous pressures in college community to undergo a major transformation and modernise its macro governance system not only to foster partnership with industry but also to have up-to date simulated-workplace learning programmes so to prepare South Africans for the future in a fast changing economic environment.

Restoring the momentum behind TVET provision could change this grim picture but that would take blood and sweat given the pressing systemic obstacles and of course, fiscal space available for the government trying to rebuild the already battered TVET system triggered by relatively low budget, corruption and shrunk with slow growth. 

The bigger question that stares us in the face: What does fostering dynamic strategic partnership with industry mean for the sector? Perhaps we can say it means improving professionalism and developing innovations in pursuit of quality technical and vocational education with modern industry-driven mid-led skills. It also suggests the following:

Providing a new 3-year National Diploma programme to replace outdated N-courses with full 360 credits prior to seeking internships or in-service training. This will contribute to more effective absorption of students into the world of work and swiftly respond to the clarion call made by White paper of colleges becoming the institutions of choice. For this to reach solid ground, the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations will also need to be at the forefront in assessing occupational qualifications with clear NQF levels and credits.  

Outlining a framework for an introduction Recognition for Prior Learning in TVET band as an imperative mechanism to upskill, reskill and assess students’ appropriate knowledge, work experience and relevant existing skills to grant formal recognition.

Building structures that will enable Colleges to form Alumni Associations and Chapters to support and offer broader scope of network for TVET graduates aimed at building strong profile of college landscape. Alumni has been proven as among the recommendable tools to construct networking career opportunities and services for graduates. In this context, Sector Education and Training Authorities will be at advantage to easily obtain accurate data about workplace skills needs and number of unemployed college graduates.Amending section 20 of Continuing Education and Training Act on the appointment of TVET principals on a term or contract basis – for at least 5 – 10 year period holding public office subject to performance and capacity in order to accelerate transformation; and tear off abuse of power, corruption, looting and patronage-based appointments as threats in public colleges. 

Government has a mammoth task to help yank the sector out of its decay with visionary leadership, financially viable and management systems in place to identify gaps and analyse as to what drives to keep outdated N-programmes of 1990s in the age of 4IR and what creates barriers to adopt new qualification programmes to meet the future needs of disenfranchised population and ultimately sustain a durable relationship with industry. 

Stanley Ncobela is an academic and lecturer. He is a regular contributor of opinion pieces on various social, academic and economic issues in the mainstream media and deeply committed to transformation of post-school education and training.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.

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