The much-criticised sector education and training authorities (Setas) are here to stay, although their number may diminish, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said on Wednesday.
Briefing the media in Cape Town, he announced an extension of Seta licences by one year, from March 2010 to March 2011, coupled with a "serious reconfiguration of the Seta landscape".
From last Sunday, Nzimande's department assumed responsibility for the skills development and training sector in government.
"We are committed to keeping Setas at the moment. We think that they are the best possible vehicles that we have."
He acknowledged there were "negative perceptions" around the performance, management and governance of the 23 Setas.
Despite this, it was better to seek to strengthen them "so that the word Seta stops being a swear word in some circles".
The viability of certain Setas was something his department would look at over the next year.
"There has been debate for some time now as to whether the 23 Setas are appropriately structured, and whether they are adequately responding to the challenge of skills development.
"The issue has been raised whether we shouldn't consider reducing the Setas... This is precisely what we want to tackle head on... from now until March 2011.
"We want to do this through a national debate... and engagement with stakeholders," he said.
What was needed was a better alignment of the Seta system to the college sector and to the universities of technology.
"That is what really requires big improvement and systematic work," he said.
Noting there was R21-billion tied up in skills development -about R16-billion in the Setas and R5-billion in the National Skills Fund - he said this money needed to be spent carefully.
"That's not a small amount of money... For such funds, we really need to take care."
Nzimande said the public accountability of Setas needed to be strengthened, including their spending.
"We want to use this [one-year] extension to really focus on strengthening the Setas and making sure that they are accountable and that they are able to spend their money in a systematic way," he said.
Nzimande also announced the appointment of his department's director general, Mary Metcalfe, as interim chairperson of the National Skills Authority (NSA) advisory body.
"This is an interim arrangement until a new NSA chairperson is appointed within the next few months."
On further education and training (FET) colleges, he said enrolment needed to double over the next five years. The FET subsystem had grown and changed over the past 15 years, and further changes were anticipated with the move of the colleges to a national function.
"Challenging work lies ahead to make colleges institutions of choice for many more young people and adults.
"The shape of our post-secondary system is not appropriately balanced between universities and colleges, and while access to universities must be increased, enrolment in colleges must double in the next five years," Nzimande said.