Struggling FETs face shake-up

2012-01-14 16:51

South Africa’s beleaguered Further Education and Training (FET) colleges should prepare for a dramatic shake-up to address the country’s dire skills shortages.

This was revealed at the launch of a new Green Paper on Post-School Education by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande this week – two days after the mother of a prospective student was trampled to death at the University of Johannesburg by a crowd desperate to gain access to the institution.

Nzimande announced that the department envisioned a complete transformation of South Africa’s higher education system, currently characterised by enrolment rates at universities that are almost three times as high as those at colleges. This has resulted in a critical shortage of artisan and mid-level skills in South Africa.

The department now wants to turn the higher education system on its head, planning a six-fold increase in current enrolment of students at colleges and other post-school institutions to reach an eventual total of 4 million by 2030, with the key focus area being on FET colleges.

But the Green Paper also notes the enormity of this challenge:
» The majority of the 50 FET colleges in the country are “mainly weak institutions”;

» At their present capacity, they can “neither absorb significantly larger numbers of students nor achieve acceptable levels of throughput (completion)”;

» The success of the National Certificate (vocational) offered by FET colleges is “generally poor” and only 4% of the class that started the certificate in 2007 completed the qualification in 2009;

» The drop-out rate in colleges is estimated to range between 13% and 25% and about 65% of students are unable to find workplace experience, which is required to complete certain diplomas;

» There is a critical shortage of trained lecturers, with many of those already working in FET colleges having “limited subject content knowledge and little, if any, workplace experience”; and

» The department has to contend with a general public perception of FET colleges as being sub-par institutions when compared to universities.

The Green Paper states that the department intends to transfer more power to college councils which have the capacity to govern themselves, while “weaker colleges will be steered and supported centrally to a greater extent”.

It also proposes the “development of a large number of additional lecturers” and possibly “importing experts from other countries to train lecturers in subject expertise”.

Nzimande said that “persuasion alone” would not change the public’s perception of FET colleges and that incentives were needed.

To this end, bursary provision by the National Student Financial Aid Scheme had been extended to FET colleges and almost quadrupled to R1.2 billion during last year.

Nzimande said he also wanted to ensure that all FET colleges had learnerships for students to understand that an FET college education came with 12 months of work experience and a “modest stipend”.

Professor Ian Scott of the Centre for Higher Education at the University of Cape Town said growing the college sector would be a “massive challenge”.

“There are only two possible outcomes (of unplanned growth), one is an increased failure rate and the other is reduced quality standards,” Scott said.

He said it was not impossible to grow the college sector, but that it would require political commitment to implement the plan.

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