But wait, Mr President, we need to talk about education...

A'Eysha Kassiem
A'Eysha Kassiem

President Cyril Ramaphosa’s much-anticipated Jobs Summit culminated on Friday in Johannesburg with two things that most industry players expected: promises and pledges.

But perhaps less expected was the lack of clear focus on the role of education on the economy.

While Ramaphosa was quick to dismiss any assertion that the summit was little more than a talk shop, he seemed to pin all our nation’s hopes of fixing SA’s job crisis at the door of business, labour and community leaders.

A new approach?

"South Africa needs a new approach to growth and development – one informed by our collective interest and which harnesses the capabilities of all social partners who should see themselves as being irrevocably committed to creating a prosperous society where all our people live a better life in peace and harmony," Ramaphosa said in his opening address on Thursday, before signing an agreement that underlined education’s contribution in the form of the Technical Vocational and Training Colleges (TVET).

The agreement, among other things, includes a plan to improve the employment opportunities of school leavers through training at TVET (previously known as Further Education and Training) colleges, which has long been set up as South Africa’s answer to topping up the country’s much-needed technical skills. As part of the agreement, business will be encouraged to partner with their nearest TVET college to give young people fresh out of the schooling system that all-important employment boost.

In theory, a practical and well-thought out solution. Except, it isn’t. At least not yet.

Just last year, former Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande was forced to concede that, on the whole, TVET colleges were "a mess", setting up a special forum to look into the failure of what is sometimes considered the ugly stepsister of higher learning.

Marred with underqualified lecturers, underfunding, limited support for students who struggle academically, as well as being home to programmes that are "insufficiently responsive" to the labour market, it’s no wonder TVET is so often overlooked by both business and would-be students alike.

What’s more, as the Mail & Guardian reported last year, TVET colleges perform badly – so badly, in fact, that only some 2% of students complete the national vocational certificate, which is the equivalent of a matric.

Heading for a crisis

In the Heher Commission report on free higher education, TVET’s graduation rate is noted as "worse than universities" with low pass rates and high dropout rates.

Furthermore, as the Mail & Guardian reports, on average, only 10.6% of students complete the programme in six years. Heher’s report also highlighted the gross underfunding of these institutions, with the TVET Colleges Governor’s Council stating that the sector was underfunded by almost R4.6bn in 2016.

Retired Judge Jonathan Heher, who headed the Commission, also warned that underfunding at TVET was heading towards a "major crisis".  

And that’s not the end of TVET’s woes.

Parliament’s Select Committee on Education and Recreation issued a statement in August this year, highlighting its concern that, in some cases, TVET students had to wait more than ten years before receiving their certificates, further hampering their chances at employment.

Chairperson Ms Lungelwa Zwane said the backlog was particularly concerning because it impacted students who were mostly from poor backgrounds.

While there are some success stories in the sector, with Higher Education Minister Naledi Pandor tasked with a turnaround strategy, the question now is how soon SA will be able to harvest the results.

Solving SA’s job crisis is, as Ramaphosa says, a "collective" effort that impacts us all, but there is no back door to meeting a challenge so clearly rooted in SA’s ailing education system.

The reality is, Mr President, that until we get education right, everything else is just talk.

A'Eysha Kassiem is Acting Editor at Fin24 and a former education writer.

** What do you think? Is government on the right track to solving SA’s job crisis? Tell us at editor@fin24.com

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