In the wrong queue

2012-01-16 00:00

THE recent events at the University­ of Johannesburg where so many people have expressed their desire to enter the university by queuing for lengthy periods have highlighted some serious­ shortcomings in our whole education system.

They have also given rise to some ill-informed opinions about, for example, the inadequate number of university places to meet the need. Surely this is not the case. The problem is that universities are seen to be sites of mass education. Of institutions offering tertiary education, universities should be catering for the smallest number.

Those institutions which offer courses that are more directly vocational should be training far more students. Among the reasons for this is that universities are very expensive, especially when it is remembered that more than 40% of students­ fail. The simple fact is that most of these students should not be at university at all. This, too, has been highlighted by reports that many applying students­ have no clear idea as to what course they wish to study or what the career implications might be of the courses they end up studying.

It is clear: attending a university is an option to occupy the time, which is far better than being unemployed and doing nothing. What is also clear is that thousands of young people are desperately keen to study further, probably in the knowledge that their school careers alone have not served them very well. The reasons that these droves are not queuing outside FET Colleges need consideration, for that's where they should be.

For the most part, however, these colleges have been unable to shrug off the unfortunate reputation they had previously when they were widely perceived to be places for school dropouts. This was often a very unfair perception, but it arose in the days when vocational and technical education both carried a stigma, and just about all parents wanted an academic education for their children. The stigma lingers, unfortunately.

A high school that is well-equipped to offer workshop subjects and technical education prefers to be known as a comprehensive rather than a technical school to avoid this stigma. The irony is that the capacity it has to offer technical subjects gives it a distinct competitive edge which, to its credit, the George Campbell School of Technology in Durban has discovered and exploited.

I have reached a conclusion that we would be far better served by doing the following: deliberately outlawing the term "matric", which is misused, reviving the correct name of senior certificate (or school-leaving certificate), raising the level required for matriculation­ exemption so that candidates who achieve it are clearly capable of coping with a university's academic programme and may progress straight to this level and providing for all others who desire tertiary education to attend a FET College.

These students may enrol directly into a technical course and learn a trade, or take a one-year preparatory course that would prepare them for university or some other tertiary study. During that year they should be exposed to technical skills as well as provided with further education in language and, hopefully, mathematics. They should also be given intensive career guidance and other counselling to reduce the number of square pegs in round holes.

At the end of the year, provided the course is properly managed, the students would be in a far better position to proceed elsewhere and cope. Those who fared well enough should be welcomed into a university where they would, by this stage, have a better understanding of what they wish to study. A course of this nature offered in an FET College would be far less expensive than a university course and the return on taxpayer investment would be much more attractive.

In order to achieve this, colleges would have to be expanded and, more importantly, their role as post-school institutions firmly recognised. This would mean an adjustment to the National Qualifications Framework to ensure that those who attend a college and pass the preparatory year, or any other FET course, do not emerge with a level-four qualification that they have already achieved by passing Standard 10. This, to my mind, is among the least sensible aspects of the whole system at the moment, and it came about because the FET College was perceived to be an alternative to high school. It clearly is not, but the role it could play as a tertiary institution in developing our young people's skills is very significant.

• Andrew Layman is the CEO of the Durban Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

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