The notion of free university tuition has gained ground in state circles, yet the chronic underfunding of technical and vocational colleges remains unacknowledged.
The growing political clout of university students has contributed to the implosion that is threatening South Africa’s technical college system, according to a ministerial committee reporting to Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande.
Since the student protest movement #FeesMustFall erupted on university campuses countrywide in 2015, the chronic underfunding of the 50 Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) colleges has worsened – even as large emergency allocations were found for universities.
President Jacob Zuma is sitting on the politically-sensitive report submitted to him last week by the Heher commission, set up to look into the feasibility of free university tuition. A separate report on the TVET system was published without much fanfare in the Government Gazette earlier this month.
The TVET college report bemoans the “gross underfunding” of colleges, especially compared with the ambitious expansion targets they were set in the 2013 White Paper on post-school education.
The number of students at TVET colleges was meant to balloon from about 345 000 in 2010 to 2.5 million by 2030. The growth of university students was meant to slow down and stabilise at 1.6 million by 2030.
This plan may always have been destined for failure, but the colleges have suffered as a result of what the ministerial committee calls the “lobbying power and interests in the university sector”.
“The committee notes that the urgent response to the #FeesMustFall campaign is an indication of the extent to which university funding is prioritised at the expense of other subsectors, such as TVET.”
TVET colleges have made this point to anyone who would listen, said Xolile Xuma, general secretary of the TVET colleges governors’ council.
“We are highly underfunded. Since 2013, the deficit has been R14 billion,” he told City Press.
This deficit is premised on the colleges chasing a headcount target and expecting government to cover 80% of the cost per student.
“We are being unfairly treated in favour of the universities,” said Xuma.
“Our students did not get any debt relief; we just cancelled their debts. We did not receive anything. The #FeesMustFall movement made Parliament concentrate on the universities. The problem is, you want people to go to the street before you give them resources. But what does the country actually need? It needs skills.
“I am not saying the universities are irrelevant, but we need to train artisans,” said Xuma.
Without a significant new allocation of funds, the colleges will most likely embark on a massive contraction, instead of expanding.
“What will happen is that we will take in the students we are funded for,” said Xuma.
“We need to register 700 000, but we are funded for 400 000. Since 2013, we have upped the enrolments, but our infrastructure cannot absorb them.
“The majority of colleges are now in severe financial distress.”
Nzimande has previously complained that Treasury will not provide the funding needed for the TVET system.
But Xuma said that National Treasury could not be blamed for the political priorities that are set by the president and Cabinet.
“I do not necessarily agree with the narrative that Treasury is unwilling to give the resources. If we were a priority for the president and the Cabinet, there would be resources.”
Too little money or too many students?
The TVET colleges had an “abysmal” pass rate, said the ministerial committee.
In 2011, before the sizeable increase in enrolments, the pass rate for college exam writers was already only 41%. This has led to an “exorbitant per capita cost, which is unsustainable”, according to the TVET report.
It goes on to state that “moreover, the absorption rate of TVET graduates in the economy is also a cause for serious concern”.
This actually understates the wastage. Treasury has, in the past, claimed that if dropouts are included, the completion rate at colleges is closer to 11%.
This high failure rate means that the state spends R454 260 to successfully produce a single national vocational certificate – the TVET equivalent of matric.
That is more expensive than putting a student through an undergraduate degree at university.
The quality of the colleges need to improve, even if this has to be at the expense of increasing enrolment, concluded the committee.
The first recommendation it has put forward is to substantially increase funding. Without more money, all other recommendations are pointless, it said.
TVET colleges receive 4% of the education budget, while universities get 11%, noted the report.
The various parts of the education system simply do not fit together, said the committee.
This lack of “articulation” leads to situations where you have to publicly fund someone’s education for nine years to produce an artisan because some people will complete matric, then the three-year national certificate (vocational), followed by a three-year apprenticeship to get all the theory and practical education they need to qualify for a trade.
According to Xuma, “the problem is not the TVET system, it is the education system”.
“The system creates people who want to go to university, but also students who cannot get into university – students who cannot speak English or write well.”
Colleges then became the default option for the least prepared youngsters after school, he said.
A lack of political commitment and funding for the colleges might be the main problem, but the TVET system also needed more support from the industries it was meant to provide skilled workers for, said Xuma.
“We are not like the universities,” he said. “We rely on access to workplaces for the practical components. The private sector has to play a role in providing workplaces, tools and resources.”
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