Flying in Formation: the National Plan for Post-School Education and Training

Published On: 2 October 2019|

The university as a “national asset”

During his keynote address at the opening of Universities South Africa’s (USAf) conference, Minister Blade Nzimande had made repeated mention of the university as a national asset in the context of a struggling South African economy. He had further pointed out where the public university sector was expected, as a developmental partner, to assist government in building a sustainable economic future.

Minister Nzimande spoke of the huge cadre of unemployed youth, the limitations of the secondary school system, the funding pressures on the sector on the one hand, and the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) pressures that question the value of a bricks and mortar university (or any kind of university for that matter) and juxtapose that against just-in-time online learning processes, on the other hand. If this leaves our vice-chancellors and executive management teams feeling the squeeze, spare a thought for the minister who, since the merger of DHET with the Department of Science and Technology (DST), admitted that he now has to deal with 103 separate structures within this mega department.

Post-secondary education and training (PSET)

With surgical precision, Dr Diane Parker, Deputy Director-General: University Education in DHET, dissected the challenges facing higher education and the solutions that had been forged from immense consultation with the sector to arrive at something that can realistically be achieved. Notwithstanding the enormity of the figures and the immensity of the challenge that awaits the sector, Dr Parker approached it systematically and comprehensively.

She explained that although work on the National Plan began in 2015, delays stemming from changes in the political leadership, the subsequent refinement with input from the new minister(s) and structural and other changes have meant that the National Plan is only now nearing completion. It will, nonetheless, still be published within this financial year.

She then detailed the chilling context which the National Plan needs to confront. Of the 100 children that enter the schooling system, 37 pass matric, 12 access university and only four complete a degree within six years.

Caption: Dr Diane Parker, DDG: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training.

Caption: Dr Diane Parker, DDG: University Education in the Department of Higher Education and Training.

This means that only 13% or 2.6 million are in universities, technical and vocational education and training (TVET) and community colleges or some form of workplace-based learning. A staggering 5.7 million are unemployed with an additional 2.5 million not economically active. “That simply means,” says Dr Parker, “that unless employment is created and young people become productive in our economy, we as a country are doomed to face a time bomb.”

The way to achieve this is to change the constituent parts of the PSET pyramid, argues Dr Parker. This seeks a shift away from the over-populated university sector towards a much greater uptake in TVET and Community Colleges by 2030.

The size and shape of the PSET system as we have it now and as intended by 2030.

“We have an elongated, leaking funnel,” claims Dr Parker, referring to all these children who enter the education system with high hopes – yet so few ever make it out at the other end into a workplace. The National Plan has to confront this reality and create a roadmap to a sustainable PSET system. “This is an attempt to ensure that everybody who is not in school has some kind of opportunity to get an education”.

The Plan’s big ideas

The National Plan for Post School Education and Training has six goals and associated objectives. It is essentially a coordinated attempt to develop, by 2030, “a more socially just, responsive and well-coordinated PSET system, providing access to a diversity of quality education and training opportunities, where students have a reasonable opportunity for achieving success, and with vastly improved links between education and the world of work.”

Four ideas emerge as the new drivers for the system. First, the massification of the college system: 1 million enrolled in the community colleges by 2030 and 2.5 million in public and private TVET colleges by the same year. Secondly, the diversification of the public universities based on their strengths and the needs of the communities in which they are located. Thirdly, Dr Parker sets out to re-conceptualise PSET in a much wider context including the former Department of Labour’s Sector Education and Training Authority (SETAs) and the latest DST White Paper. Lastly, all of these stakeholders – especially universities – need to actively respond to the community in which they find themselves. Goal 3 has this as one of its outcomes: “A diverse range of qualifications relevant to the aspirations and needs of locality and responsive to community needs.”

According to Dr Parker, as bold as the plan is, it is not only about dealing with the main providers of PSET. It is about coordinating interaction with a diverse range of players who feed into PSET (this includes the National Student Financial Aid Scheme– NSFAS, the SETAs) and those who feed out of PSET (the world of work, entrepreneurial start-up possibilities).


Each of these entities will need operational plans and will need to be aligned both to the DHET but also to the institutions with whom they will interact. “The university has to understand that it will need to operate in the local, the national, the regional and the international context. All at once.”

From shotgun to formation flying

Dr Parker concluded with an admission that in the past, policy and strategy often took a shotgun approach. The real hope is that with this new Plan there will be greater alignment. She ended by expressing an aspiration through a quote: “Compared to a single bird flying alone, a flock of birds flying in a ‘V’ formation derives a 71% increase in flying efficiency. And that’s what we need, coordination, cooperation and partnerships to achieve a national system.”

In the limited space provided for commentary, Professor Ahmed Bawa, CEO of USAf made it clear that he was supportive of the Plan but pointed out “that we are retro-fitting the system into what we already have”. He felt that we could be missing an opportunity to think about higher education in new and radical ways; like two and four year colleges and regional models that might work. “Can we not think about differentiation through design?” Prof Bawa asked. He also noted that with the merger with DST, there would be a need to rethink research in ways that would not leave research in two separate entities.

Dr Parker responded by saying that the DST is a separate institution and there does not have to be complete alignment between what the DST does and what DHET does.

In conclusion, Dr Parker, suggested what she called the “higher education space.” She asked the delegates to imagine a space occupied simultaneously by a university, a TVET and community college all working together, generating from artisanal and technical basic skills through engineering to high-level research — all in response to the pressing challenges facing their common community while generating good for the entire society and beyond.

Written by Patrick Fish, an independent writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.