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.
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 South African government realises the importance of these colleges and has announced a goal of having 2.5 million students enrolled in them. This is a tall order.
Latest statistics show that public and private colleges together had about 780 000 students, compared to about 970 000 in public universities. That’s despite admission requirements being lower for college applicants. This indicates that technical colleges are not a first choice institution for post-secondary schooling.
Policymakers are therefore faced with a challenge. But how should they fix it?
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 28,000 individual South Africans. It provides interesting insights.
The information shows that young people from poor families are the ones who aren’t signing up for any kind of tertiary education. This is a critical cohort of people in the country. But to make it possible for them to attend technical colleges – and for government to increase technical college enrolments fourfold – a number of things will have to change.
This includes tackling the preference for university and the limited enrolment of young people who don’t complete Grade 12 in college. Only 60% of children entering South African schools go on to write the Grade 12 exam and only a third enrol in post-secondary schooling.
Fixing all the problems will take a lot. To broaden access, attention needs to focus on the group that’s not currently participating in any form of post-secondary education.
Why young people drop out
One of the key aims of the study was to determine the factors influencing when, why and how South Africans move in and out of income poverty. The study has data on the circumstances of young people at the point when they are in matric (Grade 12 - the final year of school). Therefore it presents a unique opportunity to examine post-schooling enrolment across the entire system.
The data is illuminating. While there are a number of factors that combine to hinder further access to education after leaving school, three rise above others: academic merit (as measured by numeracy scores); household income; and level of parental education.
It shows that academically able young people from high income and low income households are more likely to enrol at university. High income households because they can afford university fees. Low income students because educational grants and scholarships come to their rescue.
Academically eligible youth from middle-income households, tend rather to enrol in technical colleges even though their scores suggest they may qualify to study at university. It is likely that this is due to short-term funding constraints.
The data also shows that 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 therefore appear to be the most at risk for not progressing to post-schooling training. This finding should make them a prime target for policy intervention.
Funding reform, and more
These insights have a valuable contribution to make to the current debate around free university education and what a new funding model for higher education should look like if post-secondary schooling numbers are going to improve.
Based on the insights from the data, it’s clear that funding should be directed at a number of key groups. The first is middle-income students with scholastic ability who qualify to study at university but who end up at technical colleges due to financial constraints.
But to maximise impact, funding must also be used to increase enrolments and broaden the base of students, particularly those with lower levels of scholastic ability, in post-secondary schooling. Enabling young people who would not otherwise have studied, the opportunity to gain a skill and hence a foothold in the labour market, must be a priority.
Challenges over and above funding also need to be addressed if the target for expanded access to technical colleges is to be met.
The problems afflicting technical colleges must be addressed. They are often perceived as second-rate institutions compared to universities. This may reflect institutional challenges – including poor management – as well as a disconnect between course content and the skills needed in the labour market. Understanding these underlying reasons and taking steps to ensure that they become institutions of choice will be necessary to broaden access.