Sunday Times

Skills fund blown on ‘soft de­grees’

Es­sen­tial ar­ti­sans lose out to ‘un­em­ploy­able’ univer­sity stu­dents

- By CHRIS BAR­RON National Science Foundation · Transnet · South African Airways · Eskom · Denel

● Bil­lions of rands ear­marked by the Na­tional Skills Fund (NSF) for the de­vel­op­ment of badly needed ar­ti­sans have been blown by the gov­ern­ment on univer­sity stu­dents in­stead, says NSF CEO Mvuy­isi Macikama.

“Our money has been spent for some­thing other than the key ar­eas we’re sup­posed to be fo­cus­ing on,” he says.

SA is so short of ar­ti­sans it is hav­ing to im­port them.

Uni­ver­si­ties, on the other hand, are churn­ing out so many stu­dents with “soft” de­grees that the mar­ket can­not ab­sorb them.

Macikama said in the NSF’s 2017-2018 an­nual re­port tabled in par­lia­ment this week that the depart­ment of higher ed­u­ca­tion & train­ing had taken R6.56bn from the NSF’s ac­cu­mu­lated sur­plus to pay for the gov­ern­ment’s no-fee in­crease prom­ise to univer­sity stu­dents.

In 2016, NSF cof­fers were raided to the tune of R1.27bn, and this shot up to a whop­ping R5.28bn last year. Macikama says by 2019-2020 there will be no sur­plus left.

The NSF in­tended spend­ing R1.5bn of this money on “re­ac­ti­vat­ing” the ca­pac­ity of state-owned en­ter­prises like Eskom, Transnet, Denel and SAA Tech­ni­cal to pro­vide the kind of ar­ti­san train­ing they did in the past be­fore be­ing hol­lowed out by state­spon­sored loot­ers.

It had al­lo­cated an­other R1.5bn to turn the coun­try’s tech­ni­cal and vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing col­leges, most of which he says are just glo­ri­fied schools, into in­sti­tu­tions that of­fer “oc­cu­pa­tion­ally di­rected” pro­grammes.

“All of these ma­jor plans have been badly ham­pered by the fact that we had to re­di­rect our re­sources to meet the de­mands of Fees Must Fall,” he says.

The NSF had no say in the mat­ter. “A de­ci­sion was taken that there should be no fee in­crease. That zero-in­crease pol­icy was not funded through the fis­cus and so the depart­ment had to look around to see what it could tap into.”

The NSF was told it would be a “one-off”, but then came the “free fees” an­nounce­ment.

“We didn’t know there would be an­other pol­icy com­ing which would be al­most a per­ma­nent fea­ture of the higher ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem.”

A no-in­crease, let alone free, fee pol­icy is “ab­so­lutely not sus­tain­able”, he says. “Ab­so­lutely not. It is a to­tally un­sus­tain­able pol­icy.”

He says the skills the NSF is man­dated to tar­get are mostly not taught at univer­sity but due to the depart­ment’s in­ter­ven­tion, its money is be­ing spent on univer­sity stu­dents re­gard­less of what they’re study­ing.

This will make the Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Plan’s goal of 30,000 ar­ti­sans a year by 2030 im­pos­si­ble to meet, he says. Only 21,000 ar­ti­sans a year are be­ing pro­duced at the mo­ment.

Although other bod­ies such as the Sec­tor Ed­u­ca­tion and Train­ing Au­thor­i­ties are sup­posed to de­liver on this as well, “you could say the NSF is a crit­i­cal player in this space”.

Busi­nesses in the met­als and en­gi­neer­ing sec­tor that are des­per­ate for skilled ar­ti­sans and paid skills levies of R3bn to the NSF last year have com­mu­ni­cated their con­cern that NSF money is be­ing chan­nelled into keep­ing fees down for so­cial sci­ences and hu­man­i­ties stu­dents at univer­sity.

“We’re go­ing through a con­sul­ta­tion process with them, and these are the con­cerns that have been raised and con­tinue to be raised,” says Macikama.

“They have ex­pressed their anger, but they re­alise that there is cur­rently a fund­ing re­al­ity in the coun­try as far as uni­ver­si­ties are con­cerned.”

He says the higher ed­u­ca­tion and train­ing depart­ment shouldn’t have treated the NSF’s bud­get as its own, but had lit­tle choice.

“It should not have. But when there is a pol­icy direc­tive like this that is ap­proved at the high­est level, and is in­clu­sive of the Na­tional Trea­sury, how can an in­sti­tu­tion act against that re­al­ity?”

The ar­gu­ment he met from the depart­ment was that the NSF’s man­date was to pro­vide skills re­quired by the coun­try, and skills pro­vided by uni­ver­si­ties are re­quired by the coun­try.

En­gi­neer­ing and med­i­cal, per­haps, but so­cial sci­ences and hu­man­i­ties?

“Maybe not on the scale that is cur­rently the case,” he says. There are more stu­dents with these qual­i­fi­ca­tions than the mar­ket is able to process, he says.

Mean­while, busi­nesses are hav­ing to im­port the skills they re­quire.

What Macikama finds per­haps more alarm­ing is that South African in­sti­tu­tions no longer have the ca­pac­ity to of­fer train­ing in badly needed spe­cial­ist skills.

“Hence we are send­ing more and more stu­dents to other coun­tries to gain the kind of skills that in­dus­try re­quires.”

He says the short­age of ar­ti­sans is ham­per­ing the roll­out of the gov­ern­ment’s in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment pro­gramme.

Thanks to pri­vate-sec­tor sup­port, NSF plans to have 26 “cen­tres of spe­cial­i­sa­tion” up and run­ning at tech­ni­cal and vo­ca­tional train­ing col­leges from Jan­uary next year are still on track, he says.

The pri­vate sec­tor is “show­ing will­ing­ness in a very big way to en­sure that they suc­ceed and give us on a con­sis­tent ba­sis the skills needed”.

Macikama says the pol­icy en­vi­ron­ment is be­ing “tight­ened up” to meet the need for as­sur­ances that the money the pri­vate sec­tor con­trib­utes will not be hi­jacked by the depart­ment to meet gov­ern­ment no-fee-in­crease com­mit­ments.

“We can’t give any guar­an­tees but we can con­trib­ute to tight­en­ing the pol­icy en­vi­ron­ment so that the lines are clearly de­fined.”

The need for cer­tainty about how the skills levy will be utilised is some­thing it em­pha­sised, he said. At all the meet­ings this is­sue “has been at the cen­tre”.

He says the cen­tres of spe­cial­i­sa­tion are in­tended to play the role of the old dis­carded ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem.

“This is about in­dus­try be­ing at the fore­front so that the ones we in­den­ture in these pro­grammes at the cen­tres of spe­cial­i­sa­tion don’t just go there as peo­ple who want to en­ter an in­sti­tu­tion, but go there be­cause in­dus­try has sent them there and wants them there to ac­quire spe­cific skills.”

Macikama, 45, who has been CEO since 2011, says he doesn’t know why the ap­pren­tice­ship sys­tem was done away with, but for­tu­nately “quite a num­ber of in­dus­tries never re­ally stopped it”.

“Man­u­fac­tur­ing in the coun­try could have col­lapsed al­to­gether if they had not kept it go­ing, even if on a smaller scale.”

Sec­tors des­per­ate for skills are con­cerned money is used to keep fees down for hu­man­i­ties stu­dents Mvuy­isi Macikama

CEO, Na­tional Skills Fund

 ?? Pic­ture: Ce­bisile Mbo­nani ?? ’Fees Must Fall’ prom­ises are com­ing home to roost, says NSF CEO Mvuy­isi Macikama.
Pic­ture: Ce­bisile Mbo­nani ’Fees Must Fall’ prom­ises are com­ing home to roost, says NSF CEO Mvuy­isi Macikama.

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