Promoting technical colleges

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Photo of the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown, New Zealand.

Nicola Branson

Improved education is widely regarded as one of the key dimensions needed to address South Africa’s pervasive legacy of poverty, inequality and youth unemployment. Improving access to higher education, and to technical colleges, in particular, has a special place in this debate.

The research is clear on this. The completion of any post-schooling education substantially improves labour market prospects. Therefore, increasing access is critical.

But much of the debate has focused on the high costs of tertiary education and the need for fees to fall at universities. A bigger challenge is increasing the overall number of students enrolled in the technical college system, known in South Africa as Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET).

Technical colleges are intended to provide vocational or mid-level skills education to school leavers with a minimum schooling level of Grade 9. They offer an important alternative to university for improving education and skills development.

The government recognises the importance of these colleges and has announced a goal of having 2.5million students enrolled in them. This is a tall order.

Latest statistics show that public and private colleges together had about 780000 students compared with about 970000 in universities. That’s despite admission requirements being lower for college applicants. This indicates that technical colleges are not a first-choice. But how should the government change this?

Some answers can be found from data collected in a long-term research project, the National Income Dynamics Study, that assessed the changing life circumstances of 28000 South Africans. It shows that young people from poor families are the ones who aren’t signing up for any kind of tertiary education. Attention needs to focus on this group.

Why young people drop out

While there are a number of factors that combine to hinder further access to further education, three stand out: academic merit; household income and level of parental education.

The data shows that academically able young people from high-income and low-income households are more likely to enrol at university. Academically eligible youth from middle-income households tend to enrol in technical colleges.

While technical college students are more socio-economically similar to those not enrolled in any post-secondary schooling, they tend to have noticeably higher scores on their numeracy tests, marginally higher household incomes during Grade 12, and mothers who are more educated.

Young people with lower scholastic ability in low and middle-income houses appear to be the most at risk for not progressing to post-schooling training.

Funding reform, and more

Funding should be directed at a number of key groups: The middle-income students with scholastic ability who qualify for university but end up at technical colleges owing to financial constraints. Funding must be used to increase enrolments and broaden the base of students, particularly those with lower levels of scholastic ability, in post-secondary schooling. The perception on technical institutions as second-rate must be addressed.

Nicola Branson is a senior research fellow, SA Labour and Development Research Unit, School of Economics, UCT. This article is based on a study that forms part of the Siyaphambili Project, a hub for post-schooling information and research.

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Photo of the Remarkables mountain range in Queenstown, New Zealand.

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