Just days after South Africa’s 2019 national elections, unemployment hit 27.6%. This remains one of the country’s most pressing challenges, and is something that analysts confirm that President Cyril Ramaphosa needs to address through policy and confidence-building initiatives. In this context, South Africa’s skills gaps are highlighted even more starkly, as is the role of education in solving unemployment.
With 57% of South African adults not having a higher secondary degree (equivalent to the National Senior Certificate), employment opportunities are slim. There are also few avenues for adults to participate in training after leaving initial education. By focusing on the Community Education and Training (CET) system and taking concrete action, South Africa can increase the opportunities available for adults to upskill and re-skills. This in turn can help to address skills gaps and align skills demand and supply.
Getting skills right: Community Education and Training in South Africa, a recently released report published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and supported by the JPMorgan Chase Foundation, points out that one of the key policy areas that can contribute to lower skills imbalances is lifelong learning, with CET able to play a significant role in this regard.
While the notion of CET has been around in South Africa for many years, it was made more concrete in the 2013 White Paper for Post-School Education and Training, which set the objective of one million students in CET by 2030. Currently, there are 273 000 adults enrolled. Substantial investments and far more ambitious actions are needed if these targets are to be realised.
Expanding CET offering and ensuring relevance
CET was kick-started by taking over the previous adult (basic) education system that provided second chance secondary education. To be relevant, the CET system offerings should be expanded from predominantly second chance education to include a wider range of programmes and services, in line with local needs. CET should incorporate vocational skills programmes and non-formal programmes, such as employability, entrepreneurship and life-skills training.
Many actors are currently providing or financing training activities of job-seekers and workers. Therefore, the Community Education and Training system does not need to reinvent the wheel, but should rather bring transparency into the existing training offer, fill the gaps in this training offer and facilitate access to training for low-skilled adults.
A key to successful CET lies in the name itself – community. To function effectively, the CET system must be responsive to the needs of the community. Institutions need to have sufficient flexibility to adapt the training offer and content to these needs. Strong coordination with local stakeholders is crucial to identify community needs, but also to develop partnerships with employers and other education and training providers.
In many countries, governing boards of education and training institutions include relevant stakeholders. This is the case in Canada, for example, where local employers, community groups and local government are on the governing boards of public colleges. Partnerships between community colleges and local employers are common in the United States. In many cases, employers from the same sector team up to co-operate with community colleges to develop and implement training programmes that address skill needs in their sector. In South Africa (and Rwanda), Harambee, a non-profit social enterprise connects business, government and young people to help thousands of young South Africans get the skills required to get and keep their first job.
Getting the CET system going
Not much progress has been made in practice since the establishment of CET to expand or improve the system, and limited public funding has been channelled towards it. The system remains plagued by high dropout rates, low quality, limited visibility and poor image.
Only a very small part of the public budget is currently allocated to the CET system, and substantial increases are unlikely in the present economic climate and in view of the significant resources needed to support fee-free access to higher education for lower-income students. This means alternative funding sources need to be mobilised.
Some solutions to explore include: The National Skills Fund should re-focus on training opportunities for vulnerable groups, and SETAs should spend the skills development levy funds more effectively. Stronger coordination with other stakeholders funding training, including provincial and municipal governments and the Unemployment Insurance Fund, are also key in reaching the common goal of higher access to training.
Of course, all of this will only work if the CET system is able to deliver quality programmes and services. Quality assurance in the current system is scattered because of the variety of programmes offered, and a more transparent system should be put in place to ensure that all training programmes comply with a minimum standard. At the same time, further investment is required in the skills of teachers, school leaders and support staff to ensure that they can carry out their tasks effectively.
In conclusion, the CET system can play a meaningful role in addressing South Africa’s skills (and therefore unemployment and poverty) challenges. But, as with the wider education system, concrete and immediate action is required for the system to have the desired impact. Strong coordination with a wide range of stakeholders is crucial for the CET system to be successful.
Moreover, investment in adult training opportunities necessarily needs to be coupled with policy interventions to address the problems plaguing the broader education system that have resulted in low educational attainment and skills that do not match employers’ needs. Improvements need to be made across the board, but in particular in basic education and technical and vocational education and training (TVET).
It is also important to note that the high unemployment rate in South Africa is not only driven by supply-side factors. Policies to stimulate the demand for labour and improve job quality are crucial to improve employment prospects of the South African population.
Marieke van de Weyer is a labour market economist at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.