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Blade’s cutting edge

Jul 01 2010 00:00 Troye Lund
CABINET’S DECISION to give the go-ahead to change the Constitution so Minister of Higher Education & Training Blade Nzimande can take control of South Africa’s 53 Further Education & Training (FET) colleges away from provinces – so he can have more direct control over them – has made Nzimande the envy of his Cabinet colleagues.

The decision has outraged the official opposition in Parliament (the Democratic Alliance), which has accused the ANC-led Government of wanting to “centralise control of everything that moves”. But it’s the kind of solution several ministers are looking for in the face of increasing pressure to improve Government efficiency and service delivery. Ministers regularly express frustration about the fact the public looks to them to improve services delivery but they have little control over that function. They formulate policy and the legal frameworks but most of the national Budget is divvied up between provinces, which then spend the money as they see fit.

For example, Transport Minister S’bu Ndebele recently issued a strongly worded statement calling for the money allocated to provinces for road maintenance to be ring-fenced so provinces don’t spend it on everything but ageing road infrastructure.

University of Cape Town constitutional law expert Pierre de Vos says: “This issue goes to the heart of our quasi-federal system that was devised as a compromise between those who wanted a strong unitary State and those who wanted a federal system.” De Vos agrees although the system works well on paper, the current political reality – coupled with a lack of capacity – means provinces, at best, don’t operate as they’re meant to and, at worst, undermine delivery and accountable government.

For example, while education spend remains Government’s largest item of spending (R165bn for 2010/2011), an audit of FET colleges conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC) has confirmed SA’s nine provinces are opting to spend resources on primary and secondary education rather than FET colleges.

The HSRC’s Michael Cosser says the audit not only revealed how provinces don’t generally prioritise FET colleges when it comes to spending in all provinces there’s also a “poor relationship” between the provincial government and the FET colleges. In many instances, says Cosser, this relationship has “broken down irrevocably”.

That, coupled with the fact FET colleges are a critical cog in Nzimande’s grand plan to tackle SA’s lack of skills by creating stronger links between education, demand for skills in the workplace and employment, is why international education and development Professor at Nottingham University, Simon McGrath, argues in favour of Nzimande’s move, saying it’s “entirely logical”.

McGrath adds: “From my perspective, part of the problem for FET colleges is that some people just see them as technical/vocational schools – somewhere for ‘failures’ to go after they’ve underperformed at Grade 9. Then you get a school mentality and a sense of those being institutions that aren’t going anywhere. However, if you put them in the same department as higher education and the Sector Education and Training Authorities (now also under Nzimande’s control) there’s a chance they might be able to sort out some of the problems of articulation to work and higher education.”

McGrath says making FET colleges a national competence would also get around the fact there are “very few South African FET experts”. “There are nowhere near enough FET specialists within the State to support 10 departments. Maybe one national department can be sufficiently capacitated; nine provincial departments wouldn’t be in the imaginable future.”

However, he does concede the success of an FET college depends on it being “heavily aligned with provincial strategies for economic growth and job creation”. In that way, McGrath says, colleges were reasonably well positioned to address the demand side of employability. “It’s vital colleges are understood as local and national resources and that the move doesn’t undermine that. Our research suggests one characteristic of college success is that they’re closely aligned to their local communities and to provincial development strategies, while developing certain areas of national excellence.”

Ironically, that “locally embedded” concept was precisely the reason why FET colleges were created under provincial law in the first place. During a R1,9m recapitalisation programme between 2006 and 2009 for FETs, Government justified the design of the system, saying it gave provinces opportunities for on the ground support for regionally specific academic programmes. For example, Western Cape colleges might specialise in wine-related industries; mining in North-West; and fisheries in KwaZulu-Natal.

While Nzimande has acknowledged that “locally embedded” concept to be important – and while it’s unclear how Government intends to address that – sources in the Higher Education Department say the plan isn’t to have a couple of bureaucrats pulling strings from Pretoria. A plan is reportedly being mooted where public vocational education and training institutions – including FETs and other career-specific colleges, such as agricultural colleges and Setas – have a “provincial presence” (a provincial office).

While Nzimande’s plan requires a change to Schedule 4 of SA’s Constitution and requires a two-thirds majority in Parliament, plus support from six of the nine provinces, Minister of Finance Pravin Gordhan has already laid the foundation for the shift. The equitable share baseline is being adjusted by around R3,4bn/year (away from provinces) to create a new conditional grant through which funds will flow to FET colleges.

Ultimately, the big question is whether this move will indeed reduce costs, improve the quality of education at FET colleges, align them better with skills required and make the people who run them more accountable.

De Vos says given the current political reality and the lack of capacity and accountability in provinces he “suspects” changing the Constitution as Nzimande (and many other ministers) wants is a “good impulse”. However, he says whether it will work as Nzimande plans or whether it will make the system more bureaucratic and less accountable is another question.

De Vos says South Africans also need to debate whether it’s necessary to make a change to the Constitution in order to resolve a short-term problem rooted in the current constraints of the political system or whether Government should muddle along until politics and its capacity are better suited to making the system work as it should.
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