THIS SUMMER I eschewed the pleasures of a complete break from the all consuming world of FE and headed south to the country of my birth - South Africa. Perversely, I planned to immerse myself totally in the nascent South African Further Education and Training (FET) sector.
As in the UK, the sector has recently been boosted in status by government pronouncements about its pivotal role in meeting South Africa's skills needs. The sector has been charged with a vital role in rolling back the glaring legacy of inequity after the apartheid years. The real challenge is to reinvent itself against a political landscape in which the black majority clearly holds the reins of political power, but precious little else (at least for the time being).
The challenges facing the government and FET are huge:
technical colleges have an extremely limited curriculum largely unsuited to the needs of a modern democracy; there is an almost uniformly black student population because "white flight" has been massive; and a completely distorted staffing profile at all levels exists - most staff are white, male and Afrikaaner (with all that this means in the racially-charged atmosphere of post-apartheid South Africa_).
Not surprisingly, these inequities have resulted in incidents of student unrest, with highly politicised and impatient young people no longer prepared to permit "transformation" to be delayed. The madness of apartheid and years of under-funding that would make even the poorest of the poorly-funded college managers here faint, leave the fledgling sector in urgent need of rationalisation and a massive cash injection.
The relevance for our sector is this. The UK, thanks to astute work by the British Council in South Africa, has achieved "preferred" status to work with the South African department of education in key aspects of its national strategy for further education and training 1999-2001. In an innovative and probably unique partnership with business, the government's strategy is being supported by the private sector, through the National Business Initiative.
The UK's recent experiences of transforming FE are perceived as particularly relevant to South Africa's needs.
Initially, UK colleges will be invited to bid for a fully-funded International Exchange Programme (IEP) intended to expose middle managers from South Africa to current practice in our sector.
Over four years 100 managers from South Africa will spend three months in selected colleges under the guidance of experienced mentors. It is anticipated that this cohort will form the basis of a leadership cadre, from which will be drawn future principals and senior managers of a modern system.
As this new SAUK partnership rolls out, it will be wholly informed by a South African government agenda - a fact that was strongly reiterated to me by key officials. The UK has been chosen as "preferred partner" despite the sometimes questionable and opportunistic practices of a small number of British colleges in the years since Nelson Mandela's release.
The purpose (and the major benefit) of a collaborative framework is to make explicit the rules of engagement for all future partnerships in South Africa. UK colleges can now be confident that their work will be in keeping with that of the major UK agencies, and legitimised by the stamp of approval from the majority government.
My visit exposed me to a gamut of experiences - the extremes of wealth and poverty that sit in such uncomfortable proximity, and to which no sector of education has been immune.
What struck me repeatedly, however, was the genuine sense of optimism with which the majority of South Africans viewed the future. This spirit of optimism was also characterised by a truly humbling display of forgiveness and desire for reconciliation on the part of the black majority which I found remarkable, given the past and continuing inequities of state racism. This spirit deserves to succeed, and the UK has a responsibility to assist the process.
It is often said that Britain is the major trading partner of South Africa. That is undoubtedly the case, but it is also true that much of the wealth of this nation was accrued on the backs of the oppressed black majority during the years of colonial exploitation, and apartheid. It is morally incumbent, in my view, on the UK to play its part in the construction of a genuine, non-racial democracy in South Africa.
It is not about what we have to teach South African colleagues, more, that we are in both countries still learning what it takes to build a modern, relevant and
equitable sector for our constituencies. We would be best to attempt this together.
Robin Landman is the secretary of the Network for Black Managers.