We all have a role to play in getting our higher education system right

2017-02-01 12:41

A friend asked, could it be that the recent attempt to shut down all Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges by the South African Further Education and Training Student Association (SAFETSA) is influenced, partly, by the fact that university students have successfully, through protests managed to grab the attention of our political leaders and in the same process making headlines across all media platforms?

No, I replied. That cannot be the reason, otherwise it would be very worrying.

The TVET sector recently found itself trending on social media because SAFETSA, a student body mandated to address the challenges facing young people at TVET Colleges, had announced the total shutdown of all TVET Colleges around the country. This was the talk of all media platforms in the country. The sad part is that as this made headlines, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) was not afforded the platform to respond, by some media houses. Thus, only one narrative was punted in some of these media platforms.

SAFETSA recently sent their memorandum of demands to the Minister of Higher Education and Training, Dr Blade Nzimande. Of-course, most of the issues raised in the memorandum to the Minister are legitimate.

It can’t be though, that while our institutions of higher learning are preparing and assisting students with registration, they also find themselves having to deal with student protests. Yes, it is the overall responsibility of the Department of Higher Education and Training to make sure that the latter does not happen, but it is as much the responsibility of all stakeholders, particularly the institutions and the students themselves. It is for this reason that Minister Nzimande engaged all stakeholders, including university student leaders, university chancellors as well as the Executive of the South African College Principals Organisation representing TVET College principals, the TVET Colleges Governors Council representing TVET College Councils and SAFETSA to discuss preparations for the 2017 academic year.

The mandate of the Department of Higher Education and Training is to develop a skilled and capable workforce that can contribute to a sustainable and inclusive growth path. Our TVET sector plays a huge role in this regard and despite the current challenges, makes an important contribution to ensure competitiveness of our economy.

Minister Nzimande has been on record saying that his department inherited a mix of Colleges with some provinces having managed their college sector better than others. Some provinces, he said, had not done well at all.

In April 2015, the Department of Higher Education and Training officially took over direct control of TVET Colleges from provinces. It has therefore only been less than two years that the TVET sector has been under direct management by the department of higher education and training.

Addressing the media recently, Minister Nzimande said “we are still in the process of ensuring that the right procedures are used when processing students, and we are aware that some institutions need further help to get on track, for example, in ensuring that the students who qualify also receive their certificates quickly, because those certificates are the passport to the future for those young people who have put great effort into getting themselves qualified”.

“An intervention task team set up by the department will speed up the process in those colleges still lagging behind with the issuing of certificates, among other matters. The department will also convene an ongoing TVET forum, which will bring student representatives, college administrators and senior officials from the department to the table, with the aim to ensure open, frank and effective channels of communication, and the ability to resolve challenges quickly, effectively and sustainably”, the Minister said.

Last year alone, the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) supported about 480 000 poor undergraduate students to access TVET Colleges and Universities, disbursing loans and bursaries totalling R14 billion. The department reports that this figure will rise to R15.2 billion this year. NSFAS will be funding more than 200 000 first time and continuing students at TVET Colleges this year. Government has also made arrangements to pay registration fees for all NSFAS funded students upfront to TVET Colleges and Universities every year from now onwards. NSFAS has already made a payment of R1.3 billion to 26 public universities and TVET Colleges. This is an advance payment for registration fees for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so that they can be admitted for their 2017 studies.

Statistics prove that there have never in our history been more young people studying in our TVET Colleges than today. It therefore cannot be true, the narrative purported by some media houses that our higher education system, particularly the TVET sector is on the brink of collapse. It is because of the commitment of this government and the hard work officials continue to discharge that we continue seeing an increase in numbers of students and funding, particularly at TVET Colleges.

Of-course, numbers alone can never be enough to solve the challenges we face in our education system. The department has announced that in pursuit of its mandate to increase access to and success in TVET Colleges, and transform them into institutions of choice, three new campuses will come into operation this year. These are Thabazimbi Campus of the Waterberg TVET College in Limpopo, the Bambanani and Nkandla Campus both of uMfolozi TVET College in KwaZulu-Natal. Over and above these, for the period 2017 to 2020, 6 more campuses will be constructed, bringing the total number of new campuses constructed to 9.

The department has also reported to be fast tracking the delivery of student accommodation in the post-school system. The department aims to add 300 000 beds at universities and TVET Colleges over the next 10 years through different financial models supported by private investment.

There has been a significant improvement in the TVET sector since the department of higher education and training took over direct control and management of this sector. This does not in any case suggest that the department must take things for granted, for there is still a lot that remains to be done.

As we continue to join hands in searching for long term solutions for the sector, the media has to also form part and play a massive role, particularly by informing and educating our youth of the choices they have in the sector.

The coverage around the shutdown of TVET Colleges by SAFETSA by some media houses in the past week, has been so inaccurate and worrying for the image of the sector, and I ask myself what this negative narrative purported by the media does to and for a young man or woman in the street, whose only hope to a better future is the same system being rubbished. Negative reporting does sell, but we should start questioning our morals when this is done at all costs. We should question our morals when we start writing for the sake of meeting a deadline and getting a story out there, without facts. We really need a patriotic media that will rally behind and support the matters of national importance, such as education and skills development in our country. Where is the media at grass root level? Our community media should actually be at the forefront, giving a true reflection of the real impact our TVET Colleges have brought in our communities, because it is community media that is best placed to communicate this.  The department of higher education and training has always been open to discuss any matter related to its mandate with the media.

The department of higher education and training responded to SAFETSA’s memorandum of demands, but amongst the concerns raised in the memorandum, the pressing issues that seem to have found their way in the media, and to some extend I felt were not dealt with fairly, were those around the outstanding results and certificates of students at TVET Colleges. The department reported that by 31 December 2016, about 96, 8% of the November 2016 examinations results in TVET Colleges were released. All pending results are being finalised, except those that are blocked due to exam irregularities.  In addition, 94% of outstanding certificates up to February 2016 have been processed. In 2007, backlogs in respect of National Certificate (Vocational), NCV stood at 468 011 of which 440 113 have been processed. The department also reported that it will continue engaging with the State Information Technology Agency (SITA) to clear all backlog certificates. SITA is mandated to improve service delivery to the public through the provision of information technology, information systems and related services in a maintained information system security environment to all government departments. The department of higher education and training thus rely solely on SITA for the production of certificates.

We must acknowledge and understand the fact that as the department deals with pressing issues, challenges will continue to emerge in the system, and this is normal, but what is important is not the short, but long term mechanisms the department is putting in place that will sustain the sector for the longest time.

Let us not only criticise and leave it all to government to get the system right. We all have a role to play.

William Somo writes in his personal capacity. He is an employee in the Media and Communication Liaison Unit at the Department of Higher Education and Training.

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