Dr Martin Prew
Knowledge Creators associated with CEPD
I am honoured by the invitation to come and reflect on this important subject of “Policy and practical challenges facing the Department of Higher Education and Training in implementing a re-imagined post-school landscape”
This discussion is perhaps overdue, given the increasing amount of work we are doing together. So I welcome this opportunity for what I hope will be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue.
As a department we have great expectations of CEPD across a number of our priority work areas and we look forward to a productive relationship based on a common commitment to building a quality, relevant and accessible post-school education and training system. Today I will provide the framework for this conceptual discussion and where we are going as a Department.
I would like to start by talking about the overall approach we have adopted, and some of the difficulties encountered. When the new Ministry and Department were created, we were for the first time bringing together the different components of post-school education and training. The structural change was a reflection of the changing purpose, focus and intent of government.
There were certain aspirations set out in the Yellow Book, and here I would like to acknowledge the historical role that CEPD has played in the early 1990s in thinking through what a post-Apartheid education and training system should look like. CEPD facilitated a process that engaged progressives involved in education and training to express a desire for a unified, integrated education and training system. Looking back today, I believe that there were many ideals set out in the Yellow Book that remain relevant today. However, in spite of the intention of creating a single unified system in practice, we set out on two separate journeys. One of creating a single public education system and the other a training system, separate from and almost unconnected from the public education system. That was the reality of the decade after liberation and we have to acknowledge that it has had a number of problematic consequences.
I do not want to dwell too much on history, but it is important to note that the impact this separation has had, both on our discourse around education and training, and in terms of the practical outcomes. The discussions in 1994 focused mainly on dismantling the fragmented and racially defined education and training system, and establishing on the one hand a unified schooling system whilst on the other a training system that would contribute to equity and redress. In a sense we were successful in achieving these goals, and it would be wrong to understate the work and achievements made in the context and conditions that existed in terms of establishing a Government of National Unity, the urgency of bringing peace and stability, and taking hold of the levers of power.
As things settled down, the “NQF debate” as it became known unfolded. The basis of this debate, I have to be honest, remains a bit of a mystery to me. The more I read, the more I wonder what the focus of the debate was and what was behind it. Frankly, I think many former education activists lost sight of what we had been trying to achieve and became embroiled in what many of us regarded as a “turf war” between “education” and “labour”. I think we lost a lot of time, but I suppose the plus side was that there was a tide of opinion that the separation of education and training was a mistake and needed to be corrected.
We now have a single Department and Ministry for Higher Education and Training and the need for a different type of debate. In a sense, the Green Paper is an attempt to give structure and focus to this needed debate, and avoid diversionary or unproductive discussions. From the discussions I have with stakeholders, the feedback I am receiving is positive. People do not agree with everything we are doing but they welcome the open and frank debate that the Minister has started and his willingness to engage.
One of the political changes we have witnessed in recent years is the focus on employment and the economy. Whereas our first decade after 1994 was driven by a complex set of agendas related to the transition to democracy, the focus has gradually shifted to a more clearly defined set of goals. We are all familiar with these but may have different views on what they reflect as priorities. My view is that both, at the level of government and on the ground in communities, the focus of the national debate has turned to employment, the economy and the critical role of education and training in achieving shared and inclusive growth. It is interesting that wherever I go, whether it is to a meeting with business stakeholders, government cluster meetings, youth structures or in the trade union movement, there is a sense of urgency and determination to deal more effectively with the economy so as to tackle poverty, inequality and unemployment.
As the focus of our national discourse moves to the economy and work, more and more people are asking “why it is that people emerging from our post-school system are not better equipped to take up employment?” and “why so many skilled people need to be recruited from abroad in order for us to build football stadiums, railway lines and roads?” Surely after 17 years we should be doing better, employing more of our own people, using our home grown skills to drive economic and industrial development? I think these are legitimate questions. We have started to engage in the Green Paper to try and find answers to these questions, but I believe we have only scratched the surface of the problem. The debate must be deepened and we need to find answers and solutions.
I have noted some criticism of the Green Paper in certain academic circles and the media in that it is employer-driven or “neo-liberal” in its approach. I am sure that there are CEPD stakeholders and associates that share a similar concern that our education and training system should not purely be about meeting economic needs. The suggestion that the Department is subverting the wider purpose and principles of our education and training system to the narrow interests of employers is a concern and in a capitalist economy this danger exists. I want to appeal to those holding these views to engage in these challenges we face as a nation.
Education is much more than a route to a job. It is about being an active citizen, it is about being able to engage in national and local development discussions, it is about the simple pleasure of being able to enjoy a good book, it is about being able to enjoy cultural and sporting activities, it is about being a well balanced human being and it is about achieving dignity and self-respect. It is all of these things, and will remain so as long as the ANC is in government. Certainly under this Minister there will be no denying of the inherent importance of education to individuals and to society.
However, and this is a big however, there is very little possibility of an individual benefiting from all these undoubted outcomes of a good education without an income. It is difficult to maintain dignity and self-respect when you are unemployed. Education and training is the main determinant in a person’s income and economic status. Yes, race and gender plays an important role, and especially race in the context of our country’s history, but under-pinning all of the inequalities and injustices is education. If a person emerging from our education and training system cannot obtain work or earn a living, that person is denied many of the benefits, we as well educated people in jobs hold dear.
It is therefore an important function of the education and training system to enable its graduates to become economically active. We must look closely at what we have been doing to understand why we are not being as successful as we would like to be, and how we can improve. The Minister makes no apology for this approach nor does he counter-pose the “economic” with the “social” and “transformational” aspects of education and training. In fact, he argues that only by paying attention to transformational issues, such as equity and redress, can we hope to achieve the inclusive growth we aspire to. Economics is important, and if there are conceptual philosophical and political issues to be addressed, then this must be tackled openly and honestly.
Let me now turn to some policy and practical challenges.
Let me start with the university system. There are enormous challenges: continuing inequality between formerly white and formerly black universities; significant levels of dropouts in the first year, particularly amongst black students; accommodation challenges, including the lack of and poor standards of accommodation; poor linkages between university departments and the industries whose needs we are trying to address. The Minister is determined to intervene when students are being let down by poor leadership, and in some cases is having to fight legal challenges. It seems that the long fought for concept of “academic freedom” can be a convenient cover for incompetence and even misuse of public funds. This tension between the independence of academic institutions and government’s responsibility to safeguard and advance the interests of students is a difficult one to manage. We must address this issue as we move towards a White Paper.
Our Further Education and Training College system has different challenges, as it seeks to respond to the Department’s vision of ensuring that FET Colleges are institutions of first choice by our learners. Clearly there are a number of problems, including poor leadership in some colleges, inadequate industry knowledge amongst lecturers, weaknesses in the areas of curriculum and materials development, and challenges in the areas of quality assurance and quality management. However, I am encouraged by the responses from college principles and staff, as well as SETAs, where there is growing confidence that we will achieve our goals. But there is still a huge amount of work that needs to be undertaken and we must not underestimate the task that lies ahead. We need to develop a network of expertise and support, to build and sustain the changes needed.
CEPD has been part of our attempts to transform Sector Education and Training Authorities and is working with at least three SETAs on research, skills planning and strategic planning. I believe that in one of these SETAs, CEPD has been able to mobilise a team to assist across all the core functions of skills planning, strategic and operational planning, programme implementation and quality assurance. I would like to thank CEPD for responding in this manner and I believe that this will allow you to gain critical insights in setting out a future agenda and role for skills development. We are now focusing on implementing the National Skills Development Strategy III and overcoming the challenges of getting the SETAs to work with public FET colleges and universities. We need to start conducting quality research, developing and implementing relevant programmes to review the skills development system. Let us start imagining NSDS IV, and the system changes required to make significant inroads on skills development.
I have no doubt that in our discussions there will be differences of opinion and we should not shy away from these differences. They need to be creative and practical in the context of the complicated and ambitious goals that we have set ourselves and with organisations such as the CEPD engaging in these debates, with your rich history of policy engagement going back over nearly two decades, and by continuing to focus our attention on the fundamentals and principles of what we are engaged in, I am sure we will have a constructive debate.
I would like to conclude by thanking Martin Prew for his contribution during his period as Director and congratulating Paul Kgobe on his appointment as the new director. Martin has been very responsive to the requests from the Department and has positioned CEPD as an important partner in this transformation journey. I wish you well in your future work and hope we will continue to see you playing an active role in this transformation journey. Martin is leaving at a time when we are planning to speed up and deepen our transformation agenda. CEPD has an important role to play and so Paul you will not have much time to settle in before we come knocking on your door. I am aware of your commitment and hard work over many years and I have every confidence that you will rise to the challenge and I look forward to working with you and your team.
I thank you once again for inviting me to address your annual general meeting.