Same old cliches, new challenges
With these words Alan Tonkin, a leading business consultant in South Africa, opened his keynote address at the International Vocational Education and Training Association conference this year in Sun City, South Africa. We'll know by the end of the Rugby World Cup just how competitive the South African rugby squad are. It will take a few more years to find out how effective the education and training system is in taking South Africa into the first division of international trade nations.
On the drive out of Johannesburg International Airport, one sees much that is familiar. The signs on the motorway are the same shade of blue as in Britain. Even some of the place names are identical. The hoardings display familiar advertisements. Some of the problems facing the vocational education and training system are also familiar. There is a very strong feeling that, in order to allow South African companies to compete effectively in world markets, the system needs to be revamped.
The South Africans are visiting the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, Singapore and Taiwan to look at education and training. They are experimenting with the German dual system of apprenticeship. They have devised a national qualifications framework which includes academic and vocational elements in a seamless robe (even the cliches are the same)and a South African Qualifications Authority is being set up.
There is frequent consultation and involvement of all the main stakeholders in the system. The technical college principals whom we met exhibited a great deal of optimism and hope for the future of their country, both politically and educationally.
There are, however, challenges that are not faced in the UK. Twelve million people are illiterate. There are 11 official languages in a country with a population almost 15 million smaller than the UK's. Although the population is largely concentrated in and around the main cities, there is a substantial, widely dispersed, rural population. The main challenge is providing all the citizens of the new South Africa with the standard of education that has been until now only enjoyed by the privileged few.
These issues were addressed at the Sun City conference, which was organised by the South African Committee of Technical College Principals with almost all the technical colleges represented.
It was clear that the principals were attempting to benchmark themselves against the standards of the international community and that they they feared being judged to have an inferior system of education. However, visits to colleges in Johannesburg and Pretoria showed that, far from being found wanting, the physical facilities, the standards of equipment, the enthusiasm of both staff and students and the obvious pleasure taken in the learning experience would be features prized by any college principal in the UK.
Although government funding is limited and students - or rather their parents - must pay for their courses, there seemed to be a recognition everywhere that education was going to play a fundamental role in helping South Africa re-establish herself within the international business community and consequently help to fund the ambitious social objectives of the Reconstruction and Development Programme.
Many problems remain. The demand for college education outstrips the supply of places - and this is among the section of the community who can afford to pay. A larger section of the population would like to gain the necessary skills to help them to find work but cannot afford to do so.
The challenges of having third and first world economies co-existing cannot be ignored - and have not been. Among the black and coloured communities, expectations have been raised, particularly in areas such as housing and education. Schooling has recently been made compulsory for all children and the government is searching for ways to fund a hoped-for increase in the number of years of compulsory education.
Having acknowledged a link between education and future prosperity, and in a climate of raised expectations, the government is now looking to the technical colleges to help to deliver its promises.
There were a number of presentations on new delivery systems for education and training. It was proposed that the great expansion needed could not be achieved, within the available resources, if traditional classroom or workshop- based education and training methods were used.
Technisa, the open and distance learning technical college, was seen as having a key role to play. Although based in Pretoria, Technisa has a national role and client group.
Another prime mover in this area is Telekom, the South African telecommunications company. Telekom's interactive distance learning facility, Skytrain, will use multi-media and satellite transmission technology to "take training to the people". There did not appear to be a recognition of the high set-up and maintenance costs of hardware and learning materials for distance- learning systems.
There are some similarities with the recoveries in Germany and Japan after the Second World War. An obvious willingness to learn from others' mistakes and to search for innovative ways of providing education and a productive workplace for its citizens, point towards the achievement of standards of economic and educational attainment that could seriously challenge many an unwary European country by the end of the next decade.
Ian Finlay lectures at the University of Strathclyde. Vanessa Martin is a senior lecturer at Dundee College.
Edited by Ian Nash.