A few weeks ago I was invited to be part of a delegation of the Ministry of Higher Education and Training that attended the BRICS Ministers of Education Meeting, held in Brasilia Brazil. The delegation included a number of stakeholders in South Africa’s higher education sector. Amongst those were senior academics form various universities, researcher and advisors of the department. This meeting was a follow up from the first meeting that took place in Paris, France.
We are grateful to the department for acknowledging the importance of the involvement of students in these important decision making platforms. It was the second time that student leadership was included in the delegation. This indicates that there is recognition of the contribution the student movement in South Africa has made to the development and transformation of higher education and training in South Africa.
“We cannot improve our country and education system outside the context of the global situation we find ourselves in.” Strategic Perspective on Transformation (SPOT)
It is within this context that we felt it was important to take part in the high level discussion about the future of education in the BRICS nations. The global political and economic landscape is changing with emerging economies, such as those in BRICS, beginning to take center stage in the world stage. There is no doubt that the international space is characterized by re-configurations in trade, growth and development. It is therefore important to consider carefully the role of skills development and knowledge in this paradigm.
We had an opportunity of making a few observations about our fellow BRICS nations. Most of our partner countries are strong-willed and resolute when it comes to implementation of their national programs. Once decisions have been made, every effort is put to ensue effective and efficient action.
South Africa has a real opportunity to take lessons from the BRICS in its journey of development and transformation of education. In as much as we can learn much from the BRICS, South Africa and Africa have important lessons for these nations. For instance our continent due to its history of oppression has great examples of empowerment policies, which BRICS nations could use in the empowerment of women and disadvantaged groups much more meaningfully. There are also many similarities between these nations especially in the Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) sector.
I participated in the High-Level experts Meeting on Professional and Technological Education group. For me this was an important opportunity to learn best practice in the TVET sector and also identify areas of cooperation and partnership with BRICS nations.
Amongst the common challenges identified throughout the BRICS body of nations, was the lack of attractiveness of the sector to youth and families. There also exist weaknesses in the linkage between the TVET sector and industry. In this regard the BRICS nations agree on a common program to establish labour market information system that will ensure capacity to analyze and forecast market relevance and skills development planning.
South Africa could learn from China, where local industries participate robustly in defining curriculum content in their local TVETs. This has assisted China also in ensuring that industry supports TVET and also provides in-service training for both students and teachers. The benefits are that teachers and students are able to relate to the workplace, making TVET graduates attractive to local industries.
South Africa needs to go through a defining paradigm shift in the program qualification mix within the TVET. The current programs mirror that of universities, reinforcing negative attitudes towards TVET, that suggest that they are lower quality “universities” or institutions. We also have very poor outcomes in our TVETs which is as a result of a number of factors, teaching capacity being a major one.
Governance and funding are also important areas of focus that our nation needs to consider. I was particularly impressed by the example of the governance structure of TVETS in the Federal Republic of Russia. Their governing councils are led by both state and industry leaders. In most of their TVETs, the Chairs of Councils, whom they call ‘Presidents’, are leaders of industry. This has led to easier flow of support from industry to colleges. Some of their colleges receive donations of resources and training equipment from the private sector. It would be great if companies, in the automobile sector in our country, could donate equipment and model vehicles to Mechanical Engineering departments of our TVETs in East London. This is common in Russia.
The involvement of the private sector must not happen without the overall leadership of the state. This is to ensure that national interests and development is not compromised. Our institutions must be market relevant, but more importantly must be driven by the developmental imperatives of the country. However the reviewing of our governance structures is important. Some of our TVET colleges have collapsed to administration due to poor management and governance. Most Councils are led by individual with little industry experience and who do not understand the sector. The Minister appoints these Councils and he should not use this to the advantage of his political acquaintances.
In relation to the question of access to TVET education, our country has been engaged in a program to reverse the British model, which favours university education than TVET. The National Development Plan, which projects that in 2030 the ratio between university education and TVET will still favour the former over the latter, unsurprisingly failed this noble goal.
It is no surprise that our government retreated from its planned objective to enroll a million students in TVET by 2014. We began hearing Minister Nzimande making statements to the effect that expanding TVET further is catastrophic because of the weaknesses in quality. So the dichotomy between quality and quantity arises. All this does is to expose the poor planning on the part of the state. If the Minister was serious about achieving a million students by 2014, he should have equally focused on radical expansion of teaching capacity, infrastructure and funding.
There are important and interesting lessons we could learn from Brazil in this regard. Let alone the massive expansion of TVET during President Lula’s administration, increasing enrolment to about 4 million, the current administration introduced the National Programme for Access to Technical Education and Employment (PTONATEC). This decisive intervention in its first phase, from 2011 targeted to expand enrolment to 8 million students within 5 years for free. Today Brazil is engaged in the second phase PRONATEC 2, which aims to expand free training spaces to 12 million between 2015 and 2018.
Our nation is much smaller demographically to Brazil, however important lesion could be learnt about how Brazil matched this radical expansion program with teaching capacity, infrastructure and funding. We could learn good lessons on planning and execution. Brazil also introduced a program called e-Tech, which supports PRONATEC, and employs technology to provide distance learning in the TVET sector. Mobile units are also used to reach remote and rural areas in Brazil. The role of industry to assist distance students to access practical training is fundamental.
South Africa could also look at its BRICS partners on their regulation of private sector involvement in skills development. For instance in Brazil, medium and large companies are compelled by the law to employ apprentices from between 5% to 15% of their workforce. They are entitled to hourly minimum wage, employment and social security rights.
In China from 1.5% to 2.5% of companies wage bill goes to vocational education and training. In South Africa we also have a skills levy of about 1%, however most of this money goes back to companies who claim it through training reports. This money has been wasted through Sector Education and Training Authorities, who fund programs that don’t meaningfully contribute to skills development.
Like South Africa, China introduced tuition free vocation education in 2009, however in our case we poorly resourced this program and many poor young people get turned away. Corruption in the administration of the NSFAS bursaries in TVET remains a challenge we all need to fight. Some colleges go against policy and require poor students to pay upfront payments. This is common practice, and without SASCO’s vigilance, many more young people could be turned away due to this illegal act. We have not so far seen decisive action from the department of Higher Education and Training against colleges that practice this illegality.
Brazil also introduces payroll tax for all companies, which supports education and training. It being an important oil and gas producer in South America, led its government to take radical and decisive interventions to support education and health. The Brazilian government allocates 75% its oil royalties for education and 25% for health. Its oil royalties amount close to R10 billion and are expected to grow to between R1 818 billion and R3 636 billion in the next 35 years. (Ziomek, 2013)
This intervention characterizes the radical approach that Brazil has been engaged in since President Lula. South Africa should seriously consider these options of funding in view of our huge mineral wealth. This approach also presents a futuristic approach by Brazilians, which we could emulate, in order to have a sustainable Free Quality Education programme.
In conclusion, the BRICS Ministers of Education meeting agreed on important areas of co-operation in regards to professional and technological education. These include developing a BRICS inventory report for the TVET sector that includes statistics, curriculum, teacher training legislation ect. This was viewed as an important instrument to identify areas of focused cooperation and partnership.
Specific areas of research and innovation within the TVET sector will be identified and initiated. This will assist to ensure that in areas of common interest BRICS nations can be able to cooperate. For instance as stated earlier there are areas of common challenges such as the attractiveness of the sector, industry linkages, teacher training and curriculum development.
India also volunteered to host an online platform for teacher training and other co-operation initiatives for the BRICS nations. This was also complemented by a great desire for student and teaching mobility within the sector across the BRICS nations. This will be an important advantage for South African students and teachers. The TVET sector in our country can benefit immensely from the BRICS platform. Fellow BRICS nations also made commitments to support and cooperate with our sister countries in Africa. It is important for our nation to always carry the mandate for Africa’s development in all engagements and platforms.
Our visit to Brazil was indeed fruitful and opened our eyes to important realities. South Africa needs to radically transform the TVET sector; this should be realized through decisive actions. Our strength rests in the collective actions by students, lecturers, workers, managers and government.
Let the Brasilia minute renew our commitment and determination to enhance quality, relevance and excellence in our TVET sector.
By Ntuthuko Makhombothi