A go-getter from age 14, Sizwe Mkhwanazi grabbed the chance at getting vocational training, and hasn’t looked back
At 14 years old and with only three years to go before obtaining the coveted Grade 12 certificate, Sizwe Mkhwanazi opted to leave school.
In 2007, he left Qondulwazi Secondary School – a farm school in Platrand, 22km from Standerton, Mpumalanga – to study office administration at the Gert Sibande Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) College.
Back then, TVET colleges were still fairly new and it was a gamble Mkhwanazi took.
Although these institutions offer education and training focused on a specific range of jobs or entrepreneurial possibilities, they remain less attractive than universities to many young people.
Government wants to enrol 2.5 million students in TVET colleges.
But the latest statistics, according to research hub Siyaphambili Project, indicate that despite the admission requirement being lower at TVET colleges, public and private colleges together have about 780 000 students, compared with about 970 000 students at public universities.
This means that technical colleges are still not a first choice institution for tertiary education.
It turns out that Mkhwanazi made the right decision to leave mainstream schooling when he was a Grade 9 learner, and the man himself has no regrets.
Now 26 years old, Mkhwanazi is based at Oxford University in the UK, where he is studying for his PhD in education.
The subject of his thesis is entrepreneurship education ecosystems.
According to Gert Sibande TVET spokesperson Jabulile Mhlabane, Mkhwanazi is the first TVET graduate to read for a PhD.
Speaking from Oxford, where he has been living for 18 months, Mkhwanazi confirmed that he made the right decision to leave school.
“When the Gert Sibande TVET came to our school and made a presentation, I knew they were talking to me. It was my chance to go to a proper, well-resourced school.
“I do not think that people in general are confident to explore. I was still making up my mind, thinking about whether I should follow the science stream or not in Grade 8, when this opportunity came along.”
After graduating with his national certificate (vocational) in office administration, Mkhwanazi landed a job as a school clerk through a chance occurrence: the permanent clerk took ill. This certificate is equivalent to Grade 12.
“The principal was impressed by my skills. We used to joke among ourselves, as the office administration group, that we were clerks-in-training, but we took pride in what we were doing. I was ready to work when I got the school job,” he said.
Mkhwanazi then studied at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), where he completed a small business management diploma in 2013. He did his B-Tech in management services and his master’s degree in operations management at Oxford Brookes University, and worked as a lecturer at UJ for five years.
“TVETs teach you skills that you will not find at university. They are well placed to build your work ethic and give you practical skills to be self-employable.
“Most university graduates cannot tell you exactly what they can do, and I can say I was able to assist a stranded school principal,” he said.
However, Mkhwanazi feels that TVETs need to do more than just “look like factories”, and develop inclusive infrastructure such as libraries.
As things stand, he adds, their environments are not conducive for human relations as there is no space for social gatherings for students.
“They need to up their game to engage their alumni, who can support current students. Universities do that very well,” he said.
Mkhwanazi is also unhappy that TVET graduates are paid peanuts compared with their university counterparts.
“TVET qualifications are not deemed to be glorious. The question is: How do we address this? TVET students do not have to feel as if they killed their academic ambitions.”
Mkhwanazi plans to take on a post-doctoral fellowship when he completes his studies in 2020.