Every child growing up in South Africa should be confident that she has a future role to play in this beautiful country of hers. She should grab her backpack each morning and head for school, safe in the knowledge that she is on a path to Somewhere. Somewhere where she will ultimately be active, fulfilled, independent, useful and relevant.
In the crisp morning air she heads off, knowing she is going to a place of learning and nurture, where the adults see her as a unique individual whose future is of utmost importance to them. She knows she will emerge from that school one day well prepared to enter a technical or vocational college, apprenticeship or perhaps even a university, any one of which will equip her with a skill set that will smooth her transition as a young adult into the world of work and independence.
By now this path should be well trodden. The “tree of learning” took root in 1994 when the hideous Bantu Education was ripped out of our soil and consigned to the compost heap of history. Why hasn’t it borne fruit yet? Why are our students on the streets instead, angry and frustrated?
The problem is implementation
In order to provide every school leaver with a post-school opportunity to develop themselves, South Africa’s post-school education and training system should currently comprise a million university places, one a half million technical or vocational college places and almost a million apprenticeships. The problem is that this plan is un-implementable without better schooling, more funding, and a growing economy. None of which will be possible until we have competent leaders who prioritize the needs of the many over the needs of a small, politically connected elite – SADTU in particular.
A map of post-school pathways to opportunity
The cohort of school leavers is currently about a million strong. (Sadly, less than half of these learners actually get a matric and we need to put huge effort into increasing this rate. There is a high drop-out rate after Grade 9, and these learners should get some form of Early Exit Certificate.)
Of these one million school leavers each year, ideally some 20-25%, or 200 000 to 250 000, should be entering our universities every year, and a further 40%, or 400 000 should be entering a technical or vocational college. The bulk of the remaining school-leavers should be able to acquire a specific skill set via an apprenticeship, with the labour market directly absorbing the remaining group, so that a simplified map of pathways to opportunity looks something like this.
Colleges to provide mid-level skills
The colleges should be central to this system, providing technical and vocational education and training (TVET) to school leavers in order for them to enter the world of work with something practical, specific and valuable to offer. An attractive, expanded, diversified, quality college system would relieve the pressure on our universities and provide the mid-level skills so desperately required by our economy.
Colleges should have strong working relationships with relevant employers, in order for their students to get on-the-job learning opportunities, and for their programmes to be highly responsive to local labour markets. The best way to incentivize this is to link budget allocations to outcomes, such as success in placing trainees in productive employment.
As with university funding, which I covered in some detail in last week’s Bokamoso, colleges should be funded by a combination of state subsidy and student fees. Student loans should be readily available for poor students and repayable on an income-contingent basis, after completion of training. Loans should include an accommodation, food and transport component, so that access to opportunity is never denied on the basis of affordability.
Apprenticeship for learning by doing
The apprenticeship system has stood the test of time as an efficient and effective form of occupational training. It must be developed and formalized in SA as a matter of urgency. By learning first-hand from an experienced tradesperson, an apprentice acquires mastery of a trade. It is an on-the-job, hands-on, training method that equips participants with exactly the right skills and experience to transition directly into a particular job.
Modern apprenticeships are an integral component of youth opportunity in countries around the world, including Austria (where 40% of teenagers enter an apprenticeship), Australia (which currently has about 500 000 apprentices in training), Germany, Switzerland, Canada and the United States, where this week, 1-7 Nov, is National Apprenticeship Week. They encompass a broad range of career areas, from construction and manufacturing to IT, healthcare and finance. Apprenticeships enable young people to enter the workplace well-trained and debt-free. For the economy, they ensure that skills production match skills requirements.
Although shown in separate boxes in my diagram above, there should necessarily be extensive overlap between our college system and our apprenticeship programme, so that learning is part theory, part practice.
Calculating our post-school education and training needs
If, as per my admittedly simplified diagram above, we can create 900 000 post-school learning opportunities for the roughly 1 million school-leavers each year, we will have hope for our future. The economy could far more easily absorb the remaining 100 000 school leavers directly into the workplace.
From this map of youth opportunity we can broadly calculate our total current requirements for post-school education and training. If students spend an average of 4 years at university, then we need about 1 million university places. This is exactly what we currently have. So our main focus for universities needs to be on increasing quality rather than quantity.
This is not so for college spaces, of which we currently only have about 700 000. Given that the average student spends about 3-4 years in college, we need to roughly double our current capacity, to about 1.5 million spaces. This means that for the college sector, we have the dual challenge of growing both quantity and quality at the same time and as soon as possible. Experience from countries such as China and South Korea shows that this is possible, given the political will.
In addition we need to work towards developing an Apprenticeship Programme that can offer about 900 000 apprenticeships at any given time, with an average duration of three years, though actual apprenticeship duration varies, depending on the particular trade.
If we could achieve this, we would have met our objectives for the post-school system, namely to provide access to all, in order to reduce poverty and inequality and to remove the racial biases in our society.
Implementation is where we fall
One million university places, one and a half million college spaces, and almost a million apprenticeships are my back-of-the-envelope ballpark numbers. And in fact these numbers are not far off what the government itself is aiming for. Which brings me to the crux of the problem here, which is that we’re failing on implementation, not planning. No matter how brilliant the plan for our post-school system, it will be un-implementable without:
- basic education,
- more funding,
- and a growing economy.
SADTU must fall
Our post-school education and training plans are dead in the water until we fix the foundation. Our basic education system needs quality teachers, so that school leavers are well-prepared when they enter the post-school system. This requires that the government prioritises the needs of twelve million school children over the needs of SADTU union bosses and the 245 000 teachers they claim to represent (although it is possible that many of these teachers are members by coercion rather than choice). Most frustrating of all is that the poorest black children bear the brunt of SADTU, because it is in the poorest schools that SADTU and thus our weakest teachers are most dominant. I want to clarify that my fight is not against unions in general, many of which, such as those in FEDUSA, are doing a good job and must continue. My fight is very specifically against SADTU and its stranglehold on our basic education system.
Funding must rise
Yesterday during question time in Parliament, when I asked the Deputy President to adjust the budget in order to increase funding to higher education, he called it a “cheap shot” and then proceeded to announce yet another commission of enquiry. Our government has become immune and unresponsive to the needs of the people it purports to represent.
Economic growth requires policy coherence
For our economy to get onto a growth path, the governing alliance must stop introducing policies that kill trade and investment, such as the barriers to US trade in agricultural products which is now threatening our eligibility to the US’s African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade programme, which provides duty-free access to a wide range of goods from sub-Saharan African countries. At serious risks now is not only millions of dollars of trade and thousands of jobs, but also, indirectly, the economic growth that youth opportunity relies on.
Good governance is the key to our future
So much will become possible when South Africa has leaders who care. Leaders who serve. Leaders who are honest and competent and committed. Leaders who choose to invest in the hopes and dreams of our children. Leaders whose policies are underpinned by the values of freedom, fairness and opportunity. Until then, South Africa remains No Country for Young People.