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Technical and vocational education – catalyst for sustainable development

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Gauteng MEC for Health and Wellness, Nomantu Nkomo-Ralehoko, during the launch of the Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) Skills Development project in collaboration with accredited training centres including TVET Colleges at Tshwane University of Technology, Ditsela Place, Hatfield. – Picture: Jacques Naude / Independent Newspapers / May 2, 2024

By Buti Manamela, Busani Ngcaweni and Mashupye H Maserumule

Investing in technical and vocational education and training is not just pivotal, it is the key to unlocking South Africa’s development potential. This system of developing human capital catalyses economic growth and social progress.

The evolution of the country’s technical and vocational education and training (TVET) sector, marked by remarkable milestones in recent years such as the expansion of campuses, the broadening of the curriculum, and the implementation of vastly improved management and governance practices, harnesses its potential.

These advancements, along with the sector’s public, private, and global partnerships and capex investments, enhance its existential value and make it a prime investment opportunity for the country’s sustainable development.

The global recognition of technical and vocational education and training is not just a testament, it is a seal of approval for its effectiveness. The World Bank, International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) have jointly studied and endorsed the sector, highlighting its potential to “transition individuals to the labour market, perform critical jobs with higher productivity, and support the transition to sustainable and resilient societies”. This should reassure and instil unwavering confidence about the sector’s value in the country’s human capital formation.

One of the most compelling reasons to invest in the TVET sector in South Africa is its potential to break the cycle of poverty. As demonstrated by countries like China, TVET can effectively “stop the intergenerational transfer of poverty”. This fact has spurred and propelled South Africa to make substantial and strategic investments in the TVET sector to tackle the pressing socio-economic challenges of unemployment and inequality head-on.

Expanding the sector

Historically, the TVET sector in South Africa primarily focused on providing vocational skills for specific trades. However, with the dawn of democracy in 1994, the TVET system underwent significant reforms to align with the country’s new socio-economic landscape and respond to changing economic needs.

The TVET sector has expanded and diversified its offerings, adapting to the evolving economic needs. It caters to various industries and occupations, including traditional trades and emerging sectors such as information technology, hospitality, and renewable energies. This shift in focus from producing qualifications for credentialism to recognising and valuing other ways of understanding human potential and ability is a significant departure from the past.

Various efforts to modernise and update the TVET curriculum to meet industry demands and global standards include incorporating technology, soft skills, and entrepreneurship training. Since 2018, new programmes in the ICT and Robotics areas have been introduced to support skills development for the fourth industrial revolution (4IR), and over 100 subjects have been reviewed and updated to ensure their currency and relevance.

Not only is the new curriculum being introduced, but the sector has established ICT Academies in over 20 TVET colleges, with the express purpose of bridging enterprises and academia while creating a talent ecosystem for the ICT industry, using the latest technology and providing practical skills needed for the ever-changing world of ICT.

Coupled with responsive curricula, the sector has also focused on initiatives to improve the quality of TVET provision through lecturer training programmes in partnership with industry stakeholders and Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs). This aims to create great craftspeople and develop innovation skills, thus optimising the country’s industrial potential. International partnerships with organisations such as CISCO, HUAWEI, GIZ, the British Council, and Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) have also been forged.

South Africa is also one of the 1l African countries where China has established Luban Workshops to share its models as part of its co-operation on vocational education with the continent. This largest economy in East Asia has the most extensive vocational education and training system offering lessons on how this sector can sustain industrial development.

These partnerships have contributed to more than 2,000 lecturers being trained in information and communication technology (ICT) and digital skills. More than 50,000 students have benefitted from these partnerships.

With Education, Training, and Development Practices (ETDP SETA), ten 4IR centres have been established in TVET colleges to support the delivery of ICT and Robotics curricula.

Industry-education integration is vital for continued training of the TVET lecturers by updating their skills and exposing them to industry experience. However, more work with industry is needed to ensure more lecturers are exposed to the ever-changing world of work and entrepreneurship.

In addition to improving the quality of lecturers through exposure, the sector has ten accredited universities that offer TVET-related programmes to train those who want to work in this sector as lecturers. This goes a long way in changing stereotypes about technical and vocational education and training, thus asserting the system as equally crucial relative to the university education and qualification system.

Maximising access

Various efforts to increase access to TVET education, particularly for historically disadvantaged groups such as women, rural communities, and people with disabilities, have changed the demographics and landscape of this sector. This is because of the new campuses established in underserved areas, including the pro-poor policies that have reduced the cost of enrolling in the sector as a barrier. These interventions include financial assistance through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS).

Currently, close to 300 campuses of TVET colleges are spread throughout the country, including in deep rural areas. Furthermore, a Prevocational Learning Programme (PLP) was introduced in 2017 to strengthen the learning foundations of those not qualifying to enroll in specific courses. PLPs are designed to increase students’ chances of completing their courses.

To create an inclusive and enabling environment for students with disabilities to access TVET colleges, the Disability Support Units (DSUs) have been established to offer integrated and holistic support services to cope with the demands of college life and their academic studies. The Department of Higher Education and Training has established five DSUs in TVET colleges and intends to roll out more.

Overall, the evolution of the TVET sector in South Africa has been marked by efforts to modernise, expand, and improve the quality of vocational education and training, leading to notable achievements in workforce development and economic empowerment.

Infrastructure for vocational education and training

Around R2.8 billion has been invested in building new campuses to ensure colleges respond to the National Development Plan (NDP) target of expanding the TVET sector. R2.3 billion has been spent on the new campus construction programme, with 11 campuses already completed. Five more campuses are targeted to be completed in the next financial year. Below is the list of completed campuses, all of which are in rural locations.

To address the aging infrastructure in colleges, the Department secured the College Infrastructure Expansion Grant (CIEG) to recapitalise, modernise and transform existing teaching and learning infrastructure in all 50 colleges. A cumulative amount of R3.701 billion has allowed colleges to repair, maintain, revamp, and modernise workshops, renovate classrooms and student ablution facilities, and install ICT infrastructure in learning areas to support the delivery of digital skills and overall enhance the learning experience of students in TVET colleges.

Nsfas for TVET students

The state provides for 80 percent of the programme costs relating to Ministerially approved programmes offered in TVET colleges, of which the student is liable for the balance of the 20 percent programme cost, known as student fees. Financially and academically deserving students may apply for Nsfas bursaries to cover the 20 percent student fees. The Department has extended Nsfas to TVET college students for the first time in 2007.

Nsfas supported 12,371 TVET college students from the R100 million allocation made available in 2007. Regarding student allowances, Nsfas initially covered either accommodation, including meals, or transport allowances. Following the introduction of fully subsidised fee-free education in 2018, Nsfas introduced two additional allowances for TVET college students: personal care and living allowance.

The Nsfas allocation significantly increased from R100 million in 2007 to R1,235 billion in 2011, benefitting 64 572 TVET college students. The allocation for TVET college students increased from R1,235 billion in 2011 to R6,964 billion in 2023. Over 1 million TVET college and university students benefit from Nsfas annually.

Work placement opportunities

The placement of TVET students in workplaces for work-integrated learning (WIL) opportunities has gained significant traction. This results from partnerships established with employers across major economic sectors: business, commerce, services, manufacturing, and engineering.

Following the President’s commitment in the 2022 State of the Nation Address (SONA) of placing 10 000 students in WIL, just over 10 000 students were placed by 31 March 2023. As of 31 December 2023, 15 408 students were placed with employers in the public sector, private sector, and non-governmental organisations, mainly with the support of the Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) and TVET colleges. The Department is poised to reach the set target of placing 20 000 students by 31 March 2024, as committed to in the 2023 SONA.

The rapid upscaling of work placement opportunities has also positively impacted artisan training for the Decade of the Artisan (2014-2024) campaign, which has brought the target of 30 000 artisans to be trained a year, a near reality in line with the target set by the NDP for 2030. The current output of artisans trained per annum is over 20 000, excluding the steep decline experienced in 2020, when the country saw a decrease of 37.2 percent from the 24 050 artisans registered in 2019. The pandemic negatively impacted artisan development and trade testing. However, the numbers have been improving since things returned to normal.

Enhancing and expanding the TVET system

The establishment of 4IR centres, entrepreneurship hubs, centres of trade specialisations, and artisan academies has taken TVET into a new era within a relatively short time. As a testimony of this progress, currently, there are 53 Centres of Specialisation (C0S) with 35 certified Trade Test Centres across the TVET system that meet world-class standards.

Improvements in and the growing maturity of the TVET college system are increasingly evident in these colleges’ institutional policy, management, and governance environment, which has evolved significantly and systematically over the last ten years.

To augment this commitment and trajectory of stronger, robust, and responsive TVET institutions, the Department is at the tail end of realising the full implementation of a maturity model to evaluate and categorise colleges into high, average, and poor performing institutions across all functional areas.

This will allow the high-performing colleges to move into areas of innovation and expansion. At the same time, the Department focuses on vastly improving the poor-performing colleges and supporting and guiding the average colleges toward optimal performance.

The National Development Plan (NDP) – South Africa’s roadmap for its Vision 2030- correctly makes a strong case for the exponential expansion of the TVET system. Technical and vocational education and training are the core mandates of TVET colleges, focusing on mid-level skills development.

The economy’s trajectory, not just in South Africa but globally, reinforces the need for more young people in vocational education and training and to infuse and intensify digital skills to meet workplace standards and global competitiveness, as underpinned by the 4IR.

While much progress has already been made with the 50 public TVET institutions, the system still needs to expand to cater adequately to the country’s youth population aged 18-35. This age cohort requires rapid skilling, upskilling, and reskilling to render them economically active within short turnaround times and, in so doing, play a significant mitigation role in the youth unemployment crisis in the country.

Investing in TVET colleges to deliver and expand programmes is critical to achieving this goal. The costs for new infrastructure to provide innovative and scarce skills need to be factored into the colleges’ programme funding. This is because their reliance on crowdfunding is often a mission untenable.

A highly responsive TVET system is infrastructure and resource-intensive, requiring a systemic and comprehensive funding package to drive quality education and training that covers theory, practical application, and workplace experience. If this is achieved, the real purpose of TVET will be realised sooner rather than later.

Buti Manamela is Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation. Professor Busani Ngcaweni is principal of the National School of Government. Professor Mashupye H Maserumule is Executive Dean, Faculty of Humanities, Tshwane University of Technology, and a member of the National Planning Commission