Skills training is available

An agricultural skills training model is ready, but government take-up is not forthcoming, says education expert Dr Raymond Sparrow.

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It is commonly recognised that the education system in South Africa is under considerable strain. Many, in fact, believe it to be on the verge of collapse. There seem to be two major reasons for this state of affairs. The first is the post-1994 educational reforms, together with the huge increase in student numbers, for which the system is ill-equipped.

The second is a steady attrition of qualified teachers and lecturers. This has been exacerbated by an aging teacher population, with many teachers and lecturers opting for early retirement due to the increased administrative burden being placed on their shoulders.To complicate matters, the way in which various government departments have interpreted the initial Higher Education directive has been met with mixed reaction.

According to this directive, all institutions with a stake in raising skills levels should work together to address the problems. Although government may have the best of intentions, there has been little commitment on the part of various government role players to follow this through.

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The agricultural sector, whose skills needs are not being addressed by existing skills programmes, has been hard hit by this lack of impetus. The modern agricultural sector ranges from traditional crop production and animal husbandry to bio- and agro-production of specialised high-value products. Those engaged in the field therefore need to keep abreast of current trends, practices and technologies. Such skills are often specific to a sector and not necessarily covered by the national curriculum of tertiary institutions.

In essence, the required skills set is much more likely to be realised through Vocational Training Programmes (VTPs) than traditional tertiary institution curricula. Yet there does not appear to be sufficient critical mass to establish task teams who can drive goal-directed training so that essential skills are transferred to the agricultural and related sectors.

This is an area on which my Unisa colleagues, Dr Martin Myer and Prof David Modise, and I have been focused for a number of years. Our work has culminated in the development of a Vocational Learning Programme (VLP). This model, benchmarked against the UK BTEC Edexcel system, was developed for the CSIR Biosciences (biotechnology/biomass production/agro-processing) sector. It is, however, applicable to a wide range of skills needed in the agricultural sector and elsewhere.

Three essentials
We believe that a robust skills development programme must amalgamate three core requirements. Firstly, the learner and the work that he or she will undertake must be central to any programme. Secondly, both the skills required and the learner’s existing skills level needs to be assessed equitably to ensure that a suitable programme is structured around the identified skills gaps. Thirdly, input from the learner’s supervisor or manager is essential to ensure that the programme is fit for purpose.

To support this, there has to be buy-in from academic, industry and governmental organisations. In this instance, the structure of the VTPs’ contents should evolve from collaboration between educational institutions and the industrial sector, again to ensure that the training is fit for purpose. Elements of this model have been adopted from the VTP system of various UK colleges, where learners receive VTP training while employed by industry.

In a modern economy, existing skills, together with the level of skills needed by the workforce, are key elements for success. In South Africa, all that is required of government is to provide the political will and initial funding to roll out and establish the programme. We have approached the relevant government departments, including the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Department of Trade and Industry, and the National Advisory Council on Innovation.

However, after initial expressions of enthusiasm following presentations to officials, there has been very little follow-up or feedback. This is despite the fact that there is a crisis in the transfer of skills in the country and billions of rands are left unspent by those departments and agencies tasked to manage the implementation of skills and skills programmes.

Dr Raymond Sparrow is treasurer of the DST-South African Institute of Physics Biophysics Initiative committee and director of the Suzanne Sparrow Plymouth Language School, a private language school founded 35 years ago in the UK.

The views expressed in our weekly opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Farmer’s Weekly.