A redefined landscape, no not really!

By ashwellglasson, 15 November, 2010

Well, it seems that the early optimism of the vision that Dr Nzimande has for the skills landscape has not borne fruit. With a pragmatic and 'realpolitik' perspective, many of us could see that the scope and quality of change required was to much to ask in such a short span of time. To many projects and processes critically dependent on each other running in parallel would be threatened if it was to be tackled all in a go. Though one might contend that the magnitude of structural change required might be far beyond the scope and resources of DHET at this point in time. It just does not have the resources to do the job and Dr. Nzimande is still trying to resource and establish the DHET at a ministerial and departmental level. He has the budget and certainly the mandate to do something, but not the human resources to do so. For me, the pending launch of the reformatted NSA, the National Artisans Moderating Body and further Higher Eductaion transformation initiatives have literally got his plate quite full, if not over-flowing. A widespread and 'deep' reform of the SETA system with all its nuances would probably consume the DHET with enough work for the next 5 years or so. What we do know is that the SETA's in their reconfigured form have another 5-year lease of life. So the chance of massive change has been put off for another 5 years, allowing the minister to begin laying the regulatory and legislative framework for the changes he really wants to make and also do what all ministers do. Which is develop a working relationship with the various SETA's and ensure that the much-vaunted monitoring and evaluation system is implemented. SETA's beware, the minister is keen on seeing some qualitative detail, which seems to have had less importance in the DoL days. So the minister looks to his internal capacity and institutional requirements first and establishes his mark on the South African education and training system by launching new structures and ways of doing things. Which is an indicator for me, that his tenure as minister is dependent on not just trying to fix institutions, but to actually address the whole framework, which is an encouraging and positive view.

Dr Nzimande is going to address his predescessors' mistake and obvious inability to affect meaningful change within the SETA landscape by doing it incrementally and not risk a massive shift instantaneously.To fix the SETA's, one actually has to address everything. This is the obvious downside of a highly integrated or 'joined-up' education and training system. Casual observers do not always detect that some 'SETA' issues are actually issues emanating within the NSA/NSF and historically SAQA and the Department of Labour. Many SETA's have performed well in some facets, whilst others have been mediocre and others downright dismal. Actually constraining skills development and human capital development in various sectors.

Back on to the point though, as previously reported by others, the state of the SETA system is still not firm enough and service delivery focused. We need to separate the causal issues and factors that may be triggering this. Perhaps we should consider that there are issues of poor institutional design, poor leadership and of course downright abuses of governance and financial mis-management within the SETA landscape and along with the usual spectre of para-statal type problems experienced in South Africa.

The issues of poor leadership, governance and mis-management are not unique to the SETA system and certainly not unique to the public sector, finally they are not unique to South Africa either. So although DHET might takes its time in addressing some of the challenges I am going to expand upon my current concerns.

We need to go back to basics and concentrate on the core roles of an occupational skills development system, which really needs to focus on the following:

  1. Skills promotion through constant sector analysis (supply and demand), forecasting and thematic focus.
  2. True qualification articulation and portability between the three frameworks matched to people and sector performance requirements.
  3. Consolidating the application of RPL for a whole range of different purposes including the historical imperative of addressing 'unrecognised' workplace learning in a formal fashion.
  4. Providing multiple routes to access and apply for National Skills Fund (NSF) for aligned projects.
  5. Quality assurance of provision and learning.

The biggest issue lies in the design of the SETA at a individual level. Well intentioned, but not well implemented. Having the skills development department, responsible for skills forecasting and levies management, plus learnership management as the imperative tool for addressing skills-shortages as well as the Education Quality Assurance department located in one institution is just not a good idea. You have the skills forecaster/grant distributor sitting with the politically motivated learnership manager and the ETQA manager who holds the keys to the 'supply' chain through accredited training provision.

In essence, you have player, coach and referee all active in the same insitution, with mixed agendas and temptations. A fertile field for all sort of potential problems, that many SETA CEO's have to manage on a daily basis and hopefully not succumb to.

Skills forecasting and needs analysis should be based upon a standardised framework or template driven approach. The original work commissioned by GTZ on behalf of DoL was seminal, but too much of a guideline and not a clearly defined template with key indicators required at a detail level. This research and evaluation approach should be grounded in a system that pulls the total skills forecasting system into an integrated view of the national, provincial, sectoral and perhaps even local needs. It should move to a labour market driven approach, from a supply and education approach, which traditionally has struggled to quantify its impact to the market and policy-makers. The Skills Forecasting system should be live and dynamic not just a five-yearly exercise, but rather an ongoing participative mechanism for addressing the various sectoral and national issues.

In essence a ETQA manager is under continous pressure from his learnership manager colleague to push through certain accreditation applications and possibly overlook certain compliance issues. So the quality assurance role of learning and learning provision, sits at second fiddle. Now you can see why there have been so few internal studies, impact research, tracer studies or research evaluations of accredited training provision by ETQA departments at a sector level. You cannot well have your own ETQA department conducting research into the quality of learnership provision, when you have to report on the success of learnerships to the DHET on a quarterly basis. Especially when there have been challenges, which most of us know have been the norm. Another key reason why the ETQA concept should be removed entirely from the SETA's as a area of responsibility and placed within the future QCTO along with the resources required. This will alleviate current backlogs of accreditation, monitoring and evaluation work and also allow for a more transparent and ethical approach to quality assurance of training and education.This will also allow quicker turn-around times for applications and most importantly standardisation of accreditation processes, which are still highly diverse and disparate between the various SETA's. It will also avoid the need for interseta MoU's everytime a provider wishes to have a learning programme appoved by a SETA other than its primary SETA. The current system takes too much time and even the public multi-purpose FET colleges face the same hurdles with the SETA's. Efficiencies can be gained quickly through this kind of approach. With it residing at the QCTO, it will also allow DHET to streamline and obtain a clear view of the training provision landscape in one database, bringing single-purpose providers into the same competitive space as multi-purpose private and public training providers.

The same goes for the grant/levy processes, where the learnership manager continues to place pressure on the levy/grant team to make more grants available for learnerships, potentially at the expense of other needs determined by the registered levey-payers. More than anything, learnerships as the tool of choice even influences the development of the primary skills forecast and promotions too, the Sector Skills Plan. Locking the sector into a five-year picture, from which there may be very little escape, once it has been gazetted and adopted in the DHET/SETA service level agreement. Learnerships should still form the core of the provision tool for skills development, but the learnership department should be changed to the provision department. A department that focuses on promoting and providing provision-specific grants for certain types of qualifications tools that best match providing quality skills for specific sectors, occupations and occupational pathways according to industry and transformation imperatives. Whether it is a artisan or trade qualification, or say a skills programme, perhaps a graduate bursary for a specialised engineering masters degree. This could be done on a ratio basis, but determined by the skills forecasting and sectoral consultation. Some of which will result in short term interventions and others more structural in nature. Examples include providing grants for NQF level 6 qualifications for specific occupations for transformation purposes, such as BTech degrees for National Diploma graduates in scarce and critical skill areas.

Things that seem to slip through the cracks a bit, are what I term thematic education and training issues of national importance (TETNI). These are cross-sectoral in nature, often dependent on the mandate and role of various government departments and strategies. This would include the impact of HIV/Aids, climate change, etc. Here the National Skills Authority and the National Skills Fund need to play a strategic role, providing catalyst grants and policy direction to address these macro-issues that threaten the potentially bright future that South Africa has. The need for a dedicated range of skills funding pipelines and windows for strategic long-term grants and thematic grants is growing critical, obviously this would need resources and expertise, as the previous DoL team that reviewed requests and project submissions under the previous minister of labours leadership were too slow and lacked project evaluation expertise. Which frustrated various provincial governments, SETA management and the sectors alike.

The influence of the DoL perspective on the universities contribution to the skills debate needs to be broken, as it really has also limited the universities roles (especially the Universities of technology and the Comprehensive Universities) in provision for skills needs.

The imperative behind the occupational or workplace experietial component is one of the greatest principles of a robust education and training system and we know that our labour market has shed more jobs in recent years than our social-protection system can cope with, as evidenced by an ever-growing militant youth rightly demanding support and opportunities to participate in the South African economy.

As we are getting closer to Christmas, perhaps minister you could play Santa this year and this is my personal wish list is one I really hope you could act upon. Here are my top 5 requests.

  1. Standardise the skills forecasting and sector skills planning processes, from a guideline to specific requirements (using a labour market information system approach).
  2. Remove the ETQA functions from the SETA structure and place it in the QCTO where it belongs. Ensure that the QCTO conducts provision impact and programme evaluations to support effective monitoring and evaluation of education and training supply.
  3. Review the status and definition of a learnership and look at a equitable ratio model of funding a variety of workplace and vocational learning programmes, across the provision and qualification spectrum.
  4. That the NSA opens and implements local and provincial offices to replace the highly defective employment and skills development sections originally run by DoL. They just do not work and need a high level of expertise to approve small grants.
  5. Broaden and deepen the range of NSF skills fund application types and windows with decent project evaluation capacity in place.

I sound critical, I know I do, but allot of great thought and vision went into the design of our education and training system in the nineties, much of which is still relevant today. Our failure has been in the delivery and management of the system and to not acknowledge that would be short-sighted in the least. We have a bigger opportunity now to fundamentally address some of the issues now, without it being to onerous on the support system. So Santa, honourable minister please bring us some presents.



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