When the Table is turned

December 11, 1998

Michael Austin looks at the difficulty South Africans face in overhauling a white-based college system

Table Mountain, along with the Kruger National Park and game reserve, is one of the most visited sites of South Africa and one of its most potent symbols. You have a long, tough, energy-sapping climb and then you reach the famous flat plateau.

South African technical education is a bit like that: a lot of effort and then a sudden halt, with no routes onwards and upwards into higher education. As with everything else in that extraordinary country, changes in the structure and aims of education are happening with bewildering speed.

For anyone fired in the furnace that has raged in Britain for the past half decade, South Africa's green paper on the future of vocational education has a lot of familiar language. Colleges will have autonomy, they will get a lot closer to business, they will widen participation, they will prepare students for assessments that form part of a new national qualifications framework, which will be competence based.

There is formidable momentum behind these ideas, which are being promoted as the essential element in a programme of national economic regeneration. Even the universities have, thus far, not jibbed at having their own qualifications included in the national framework.

Like everything else in pre-Mandela South Africa, colleges were organised on strictly racial lines with white colleges being infinitely better funded than those for blacks or coloureds. Johannesburg Technical College, a former white college, is noted for its "regular outbreaks of extreme violence and intimidation", as the deputy principal puts it.

He was referring to the national rugby stadium, Ellis Park, just across the road, but his description is true of the whole district. In three years the college has lost all its white students to the private sector.

It is defended with razor wire, steel gates and armed guards. Those of us from British colleges preening ourselves at having widened participation by, maybe, 10 per cent, could only gape at the difficulties of re-engineering a college to cope with a 100 per cent new student population, most of them coming in from Soweto or similar townships every day.

That the government sees social cohesion as inextricably linked to education reform is evident from the use of the same words to describe the different but simultaneous phases of nation-building: transformation; equity; redress; entitlement; democracy; transparency; negotiation; and consultation. There was an unmistakable echo of new Labour in this ringing declaration from the lips of senior civil servants (usually black) and from heads of colleges (usually white).

The long-term aims of the reforms may be disputed by vested interests at some points in the system, but the means to achieve those ends are passionately argued.

The problem for the South African government lies in reconciling immediate needs with long-term, structural reforms.

According to the ministry of education, there is enormous demand for vocational education and training, particularly from the black population. They want it now and they want the jobs they think will follow the training.

In the short term colleges cannot cope: there are too few places available in too many small, scattered, predominantly rural colleges. The curriculum offer is out of date in a developing economy facing globalisation. Staff lack professional and pedagogic skills.

All these issues are being addressed by the reform programme, as well as the enormous disparity in the quality of provision in the different provinces, itself a consequence of historically different priorities within provincial administrations.

Nothing in any of that would be unfamiliar to case-hardened British further education types who have been down the mill-race of incorporation, except that the scale of the South African problems is, of course, so much larger.

Managing their way through the immediate issues will be tough going. As further evidence that there are no new solutions, only relabelled ones, learnerships are being introduced. These are essentially clones of our own modern apprenticeships. Starting with catering, motor vehicle engineering, electrical engineering, care and construction they will eventually roll out over all occupations.

Who will set the performance standards required in the learnerships? Why, national standards bodies, of course, their membership drawn from all important sectors of the community. Involvement, participation, ownership, the three watchwords for the education reforms as for the whole process of building the new democracy. The South African Qualifications Authority has set up its own website: http://www.saqa.org.za to reinforce the message being carried in leaflets and newspaper advertisements that these proposals are out for discussion.

Each stage of each process is monitored and supported by committees, themselves representative of a range of interests. Sooner or later, terminal consultation fatigue is bound to set in, but for the moment the ferment is vigorous.

One evening, as the light was failing, we travelled out from Johannesburg. On each side of the busy rural highway people were ambling along in ones and twos, some going towards town, some away from it, some carrying bags, all of them black.

There was an aimlessness, a lack of anticipation in their step, an absence of purpose in their expression that left a troubled image on the retina and a nagging anxiety in the mind.

Michael Austin, principal of Accrington and Rossendale College, visited South Africa with a British Council delegation.

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