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23 Feb 2016

Expanding the Conception of Vocational Education and Training: Why the Reorganisation of South Africa’s Post-Schooling System offers New Opportunities By Volker Wedekind

By Volker Wedekind, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg

SA.flagIn the context of the creation of a distinct Ministry of Higher Education and Training and a recent White Paper on Post-School Education and Training, South Africa is busy reconfiguring the entire post-school system. One of the features of the new landscape is a much greater role for Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) Colleges, as well as the creation of new Community Colleges. This blog suggests that this reorganisation of the post-school system provides an opportunity to view vocational education as something broader than just TVET, and asks whether an expanded view of vocational education and training (VET) might be helpful in other developing country contexts.

There is little doubt that TVET is receiving unprecedented attention in South Africa. TVET is linked to the debates about skills and skills shortages, employability, employment and the lack thereof, economic growth and job creation, entrepreneurship and sustainable livelihoods (see for example South Africa’s National Development Plan). These wider debates are influenced by, and have themselves influenced, educational and economic policies, which all propose a major expansion of the TVET system. Indeed, the 50 public TVET colleges alone have doubled their enrolment over the past five years from about 350,000 students in 2010 to about 700,000 in 2015.

In most of the public and policy discourse in South Africa vocational education is associated with intermediate level skills in the technical spheres, usually offered at colleges. But is this what TVET is? There is no single definition of TVET and understandings vary significantly. For purposes of this blog I adopt McGrath’s definition – “VET is conventionally understood as encompassing the myriad forms of learning that are primarily aimed at supporting participation in the worlds-of-work, whether in terms of (re)integration into work or increased effectiveness of those currently defined as being in work” (McGrath 2012). This is very similar to UNESCO’s definition. The common feature of all TVET is the link to the world of work, either through the overt preparation of new people for particular types of work, the retraining of working people for new forms of work, or the improvement of people’s skills in existing workplaces. Given this understanding, it is clear that TVET happens both in formal education institutions and in the workplace, and TVET can be identified at multiple levels of the education system.

In South Africa there is a fairly strong orientation to work in much of the general schooling curriculum, with a growing emphasis on dedicated technical, occupational and agricultural schools. Then there are the public TVET Colleges with an array of vocational qualifications as well as shorter skills programmes. What is far less often discussed as part of the TVET system are public colleges in specialized fields such as agriculture, nursing, safety and security and public administration. Many of the state owned companies dealing with railroads, ports, electricity, telecommunication, water and aviation have their own training academies. The newly established and evolving community colleges will also include a vocational strand, alongside adult basic education, second chance schooling and so forth. More controversially perhaps, I argue that a significant component of the qualifications on offer at universities, and more especially universities of technology, are explicitly geared towards sites of work. Even the training of professionals in fields such as health science, education, social work, engineering and business studies at universities can be labelled as vocational education. The same institutional types exist in the private sector with colleges and higher education institutions offering a wide variety of vocational and occupational programmes.  Regardless of level or whether public or private, there is a range of common issues in the orientation, delivery and pedagogy of these programmes.

But what is the value of expanding the definition of vocational education beyond the colleges?

  • Firstly, an expanded notion of vocational education might help to reduce the lingering stigma attached to TVET in South Africa. Due to the particular colonial and apartheid history, manual labour and blue collar work has not only become associated with lower status but takes on a particular race dynamic in South Africa. Breaking down the distinctions between vocational programmes in schools, colleges, academies and universities may help to reduce the perceived inferiority of certain types of programmes and the racialized occupational structure that remains largely in place. Colleges should be institutions of first choice, not just places to go if one is rejected by or unable to afford university education.
  • Secondly, by viewing all these different institutional types and offerings as part of a continuum, there is a greater chance of developing programmes that articulate and create opportunities for progression in the occupation. This has been a major obstacle in the South African system despite formal articulation possibilities allowed by the National Qualifications Framework.
  • Thirdly, by viewing the system as a whole and exploring the overlaps in knowledge and skills required to teach students in these different sites, there is improved scope for developing existing and new lecturers for vocational teaching. Instead of training or providing professional development for a set of lecturers limited to a specific institutional type, this expanded view of vocational education allows us to define the teachers by the field of expertise rather than the site of teaching. Already in South Africa there are attempts to align the teacher education curriculum for vocational teachers across institutions. This creates economies of scale, but also opens up valuable dialogue about what pedagogic strategies are appropriate at what levels.
  • No doubt there are risks associated with a wider definition. It may be that the dedicated focus on colleges is lost and the more powerful university sector dominates. But there is little doubt that breaking down the silos that separate the different components of the system might enable some new imagining. Is this a South African peculiarity, or are other countries engaging with similar debates?

Some of the ideas for this blog are drawn from a forthcoming report titled Technical and Vocational Education and Training in the South African Education System: A report for the ETDP SETA prepared by Volker Wedekind with assistance from Shari Joseph and Takalani Muloiwa.

Volker Wedekind holds the Research Chair in Vocational Education and Pedagogy at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour, School of Education, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. Email:

On 23rd February 2016 in Johannesburg, NORRAG and REAL, the Centre for researching Education and Labour, of the University of the Witwatersrand are hosting a seminar to launch their newly established International Collaborative Programme of Work in education, skills and labour policies.

NORRAG (Network for International Policies and Cooperation in Education and Training) is an internationally recognised, multi-stakeholder network which has been seeking to inform, challenge and influence international education and training policies and cooperation for almost 30 years. NORRAG has more than 4,500 registered members worldwide and is free to join. Not a member? Join free here.

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