Let’s do it for the young ones

2015-02-03 06:00

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Whatever your feelings about Blade Nzimande, it must be said the outspoken higher education minister is sparking a revolution or a return to old ways that could spark something special.

Since his appointment in 2009, he has rightly and relentlessly pushed forthe repositioning of Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges.

If his grand plan succeeds, South Africa will follow the lead of two of Europe’s most successful economies – Switzerland and Germany – that depend on vocational education. Switzerland, which I visited in December, has a successful dual-track tertiary education system.

High school ends at Grade 9, after which about 80% of its young people choose part-time classroom instruction at a vocational college, combined with a part-time apprenticeship at a host company.

To understand the Swiss attitude to vocational training, consider the story I was told of a chief financial officer who once asked his CEO: “What if we spend money training our employees and they leave?”

The CEO replied: “What if we don’t train them and they stay?”

That is the question Swiss companies faced in the early 2000s, when the country introduced its dual-track vocational education system.

Professor Stefan Wolter is the managing director of the Swiss Coordination Centre for Research in Education and a professor of economics at the University of Berne, where he heads the Centre for Research in Economics of Education.

He says Swiss companies initially resisted taking apprenticeships.

“Companies will not train people unless there’s something in itfor them,” Wolter told me during a week-long visit to Berne.

“But there’s always something in itfor them. It’s just that they are often not smart enough to see it.

“First, they produce goods at a low cost if they take apprentices who are working while learning. Apprentices are paid a stipend. Even if you employ them afterwards, you still pay them low salaries.”

A second benefit is related to specialised companies that “train their own people and keep them”.

“If they don’t train people, they will not be able to find them in the labour market,” he said.

Companies gradually realised that it was in their interest to take apprenticeships without government wielding a stick, and it’s now become part of Swiss culture.

Companies in similar industries grouped themselves into associations. While they trained apprentices, they also collectively established workshops that offered industry-specific and specialised training necessary for qualification, which might not have been offered in their companies. All companies belonging to an association paid levies to keep the workshops running.

The same associations were also responsible for developing the curriculums for qualifications in their industry. However, the government was still responsible for quality-assuring these courses and issuing certificates, diplomas and degrees.

It makes sense for training to be done in companies with their modern technology and equipment. TVET colleges and universities don’t have the money to buy the machinery, nor the know-how to operate them.

Depending on the profession, and if they so wish, Swiss students can study further for another year or two and qualify with a vocational education and training diploma or a federal vocational baccalaureate (FVB).

The FVB entitles its holders to enrol at universities of applied sciences, equivalent to South Africa’s universities of technology. The system also offers professional education and training diplomas, advanced diplomas and degrees.

Generally, these are meant for senior managers or experienced workers who want to acquire more practical and theoretical skills in their fields.

That’s not to say the academically inclined get left behind. After Grade 9, an average of 20% of its students will spend another four years in school before going on to a university of their choice.

South Africa’s TVET colleges – Nzimande announced late last year they would no longer be known as Further Education and Training Colleges, or FETs – seem to have been the country’s maltreated stepchild.

The minister is on record as saying that he wants TVET colleges to be the premier post-schooling choice for matrics.

Here at home, that’s crucial for two major reasons.

Firstly, universities simply can’t accommodate the more than half a million pupils who pass matric every year. Secondly, functioning TVET colleges will produce fully qualified and experienced graduates who are ready forthe workplace.

This is critical, especially since employers always complain about spending money to equip university graduates with experiential training. It’s not clear if South African companies will look to the Swiss model or reluctantly submit themselves to a government stick (and perhaps a carrot or two).

Whether our corporates get on board or not, Nzimande’s plan is a good one. Next time you’re feeling disheartened minister, look to Switzerland – and learn.

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