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Blade’s college Conundrum

Oct 30 2016 08:00
Dewald Van Rensburg

Enrolments at the government’s 50 technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges have seemingly plummeted this year, pointing to a crisis for Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande’s plans to have the universities unseated as the core of the post-school system.

In the adjusted estimates of expenditure released with the medium-term budget policy statement this week, the higher education vote shows that TVET college enrolments stood at 580 719 at the end of September.

Last year, this figure had already been 614 358 a month earlier into the year, at the end of August.

On a “full-time equivalent” basis, the colleges have done even worse, demonstrating that the enrolments achieved include too many short- or part-time courses.

The number of artisan learners and “work-based learning opportunities” also fell.

The policy statement simply notes that college enrolment targets are “unlikely to be achieved by the end of 2016/17”.

The target was set “without commensurate funding being available to accommodate rapid increases in enrolments”, reads the document.

This underscores the major contradiction between the university-based #FeesMustFall movement and the national debate on education funding it has sparked on the one hand, and the pre-existing plan for higher education on the other.

The latter, set out in the white paper on post-school education of 2013, aims to have TVET colleges displace universities as the heart of the higher education system.

It sets targets for 2030: to quadruple the number of students at TVET colleges to 2.5 million while the growth of university students is made to slow down so that the current 1 million students become a mere 1.6 million by 2030.

In a little-reported submission to the fees commission earlier this year, Treasury had labelled this vision as practically impossible – fees or no fees.

According to Treasury, the country would have to build 15 to 20 new TVET campuses every year and employ more qualified lecturers than can reasonably be assumed to exist.

Apart from that, the cost of running the system would be astonishing: R655 billion per year by 2030. Adjusted for inflation, that comes to R250 billion in 2014 rand terms – more than three times the cost of the current system.

Assuming that fees stay, but increase at only the inflation rate while all state subsidies increase by 2.9% per year, Treasury then estimated the “shortfall” if Nzimande’s policy was fully implemented. By 2030, this would be R369 billion – of which 63% relates to the vastly expanded college system.

If South Africa adopted more modest education targets – called the “mixed policy scenario” in the white paper – the shortfall by 2030 would be R130 billion, of which more than half would be college related.

Universities not the answer

This year’s fall in college students comes as Nzimande has used every public platform open to him to complain about how the campaign for free higher education has been university-centred.

Nzimande made an appearance at the traditional media briefing preceding the finance minister’s mini budget speech on Wednesday.

“University students are better organised and they have the muscle,” said Nzimande.

“Many problems at universities cannot be resolved by only focussing on the universities,” he said. “We need a significant expansion of the colleges. This is not only to redirect students, but because South Africa needs the skills produced there,” he said.

The college sector should by rights be “three to four times” the university sector, said Nzimande – an even more extreme growth than his white paper had called for.

Nzimande made the same argument when he appeared before the fees commission earlier this month.

There he told the commission that his department’s massive increase in college funding and enrolments is the prime example of how the progressive realisation of the right to higher education is being delivered.

At the commission, Nzimande said that “priority must absolutely be given to technical and vocational training”.

“The biggest demand is for mid-level skills, yet the university system is bigger than the college system,” he lamented, saying that the real demand in the labour market is for plumbers, electricians, motor mechanics and similar skills.

“We have constantly put bids to Treasury,” Nzimande said.

“If government is serious about the National Development Plan, it has to significantly increase funding for TVET,” he said.

Since 2010, Nzimande’s department has channelled much of the additional money it has received from Treasury towards the colleges – including through the National Student Financial Aid Scheme. College enrolments shot up from 350 000 to 700 000, but this trajectory seems to have stalled and even reversed.

The mini budget quantifies the total cost of this year’s and last year’s concessions to the student movement at about R34 billion over four years.

It also mentions that some of the extra money for universities “will be found elsewhere from within the post-school education system” – a promise that couldn’t refer to many other things than the TVET sector and possibly the skills levy that funds the Sector Education and Training Authorities and their learnerships and skills programmes – including through the TVET colleges.

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