Skilling the nation stands to succeed when personal and organisational philosophies converge

Published On: 3 September 2021|

She is driven by the desire to ensure that today’s younger generation and those to follow have a better life and believes that quality education holds the key to that. As Chief Executive Officer for the Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA), Mrs Nombulelo Sesi Nxesi is living her dream. Having been at the helm of this organisation since 2004, she is the longest-serving among SETA CEOs and has a visible track record to show for it.

The ETDP SETA was established in 2000 in terms of the Skills Development Act 1998 (Act No. 97 of 1998).

Powered from the National Skills Development Act (1998) that was founded to skill the nation, the ETDP SETA is set on a path to achieve South Africa’s priorities laid out in the National Skills Development Strategy (NSDS). In terms of the Skills Development Act, this SETA has been mandated to advance education, training and development practices by skilling South Africa’s employed workforce to enhance their career mobility and to improve productivity in the workplace while also promoting self-employment. The organisation encourages employers to allow their workplaces to become continuing learning environments – thus providing opportunities to employees to acquire new skills. It enables new entrants to the labour market to gain meaningful work experience. It enhances the employment prospects of the unemployed by equipping them with new skills through education and training while enabling the previously retrenched to re-enter the job market.

Having seen, over the years, that many households struggle to pay university tuition fees, Nxesi’s organisation decided to channel some of the skills development levies they receive towards eroding the mounds of historical debt threatening students’ ability to complete their studies, and to graduate.

It is all about the betterment of lives

Essentially, the ETDP SETA aims to improve lives. In her own words, Nxesi says “you educate someone to change their mindset in their socio-economic status, for the betterment of that person and the quality of their life.” So, evidently, her outlook on skilling youth and the aspirations of the ETDP SETA seamlessly intersect.

Mrs Nombulelo Sesi Nxesi, Chief Executive Officer of the Education, Training and Development Practices Sector Education and Training Authority (ETDP SETA), is the longest serving among SETA CEOs.

The CEO says her organisation supports a broad constituency — from childhood development all the way to doctoral level. Government departments of Basic Education and Early Childhood Development are part of their constituency. They also partner with other SETAs to achieve those sectors’ education, training and development aspirations. In schools, her organisation ensures that teachers are competent. “We develop the leadership and managerial capacity of school leaders and the districts that support those schools. We serve public, private and independent education and vocational colleges as well as community colleges.” They also provide support to universities. That is how they play a role from Grade R to Phd level.

Universities South Africa is a fitting partner

Since forming a partnership with Universities South Africa in 2020, the ETDP SETA has contributed over R419 million towards student bursaries in public universities. This accounts for 80% of the cumulative funding that USAf received from six SETAs in the past year. Initially, the ETDP SETA pledged R280 million, 71.4% (R200 million) of which would be invested in tuition fees of at least 7000 undergraduates who had been proven to have no other funding options for 2021. The other R80 million (28.6%) would fund bursaries of at least 2500 students entering the post-graduate leg of their university study. Subsequently, the ETDP SETA has pumped R35 million into the University Lecturer Development Programme (ULDP), which would upskill lecturers in technology-based teaching during the 2021/2022 financial year in direct response to the challenges posed by the CoViD-19. The ETDP SETA has since disbursed R58.1 million to universities in 2021, which was broken down into R50m to fund tuition fees of 500 first-year B.Ed students in 2021; R5m to fund bursaries for 50 Masters in Mathematics students and R3.1m to fund other bursaries in response to requests directly made to the ETDP SETA by students pursuing various other disciplines.

Yet another contribution in 2021, of R45 million, was received to assist students with fees debt that would otherwise hamper their graduation.

In addition to these bursaries and as part of their graduate internship programme, the ETDP SETA has opened its doors to workplace experiential learning in favour of young graduates. In that context, they have, in 2021, deployed six of their interns to USAf, to gain experience as project administrators for a duration of 24 months. The ETDP SETA pays these resources’ stipends directly, even though all six are attached full time to the USAf Office.

Convergence of beliefs make for a harmonious relationship

In USAf, Nxesi says they and her team found an organisation that not only understands education, training and development, but also “appreciates that a lack of education translates into poverty.” They found USAf sharing ETDP SETA’s philosophy that increasing graduation numbers enhances employability in those that are unemployed, and occupational mobility for those already in jobs. The two organisations are therefore working together to address the NDP vision 2030 targets for growing university graduates while addressing poverty, unemployment and inequality.

In the one year of this relationship, Nxesi says they admired USAf’s efficiencies and effectiveness, evident in the speed with which USAf processes documents and pays student fees. “We want students to know that we are passionate about what we do, and that, in the ETDP SETA, they have found a true mentor and supporter.” In USAf, they found a partner supporting that outlook. They also found USAf understanding that South Africa needs to grow graduates in especially gateway subjects such as engineering, science, mathematics, and accounting, and the quality teaching thereof.

Thus, the USAf relationship is seeking to ensure that:

  1. Young people who have accessed higher education succeed and go on to graduate
  2. Students proceed beyond the bachelor’s degree to achieve Phds
  3. The lecturers in the Faculties of Education are re-skilled to deliver the technological pedagogy geared at producing multiskilled learners who will address South Africa’s 4IR agenda.
  4. South Africa produces doctoral graduates in mathematical fields — future problem solvers with an understanding of 4IR and statistics.
  5. Students are offered relief from historical debt and proceed to post-graduate studies; enter the job market or start their own enterprises.

This relationship is not limited to giving money. “We see to it that students are properly selected among achievers, so that they do not repeat courses. Thereafter we monitor how they attain occupational mobility and how they are contributing to the betterment of others. We require them to sign a bursary agreement, not to get a return but to instil an understanding in them that this is our investment in Human Resources for South Africa. We want them to perpetuate this by also investing in the betterment of others.”

Does she envisage the relationship with USAf evolving beyond 2021? Nxesi says “most of our current projects are of a multi-year duration. If our visions continue to be aligned; if the need continues and there continues to be a positive response, depending on our affordability and capacity in USAf, we will continue in a long-term relationship.”

When Higher Education South Africa (HESA) changed names to Universities SA, Mrs Nxesi was among 10 Friends of HESA that delivered a message of support at the name-change ceremony on 22 July 2015. So, the current relationship with USAf is not new.
Under Nxesi’s leadership, the ETDP SETA was a funding partner of the Higher Education Leadership and Management (HELM) programme from 2012/3 to 2016 and contributed to the building of leadership and management capacity in the university sector. The group above was among the HELM alumni groups of the past. The ETDP SETA continues to support the work of HELM and is currently funding the University Lecturer Development Programme (ULDP) for 1000 participants.

From teacher to policy maker

Nxesi was born and raised in Cradock, in the Eastern Cape, to a father who, having worked at a hospital as a general worker, aspired to see her become a nurse. “But I had a bigger ambition to become a medical doctor.” On completion of her primary education, she was sent off to obtain her Junior Certificate at Lawson Secondary school in Fort Beaufort, after which she completed her schooling at Nompendulo Secondary school in Zwelitsha. After passing matric (standard 10), Nxesi was accepted for a BSc pre-medicine programme at Fort Hare University. Nxesi also participated in the international Maths and Science Olympaids as she is passionate about Mathematics and Science subjects.

“Had I not received a bursary from the Ciskei Government at a time when I did not have funds to continue with my studies after passing matric with an exemption, I do not know where I would have ended up. I was sitting at home pondering my future when I received a letter informing me that I was awarded R50,000 from the Ciskei Government to pursue a BSc.” This is how this passion for making a difference in the lives of other people was fuelled. Till this day she remains committed to develop young people so that they become independent and, in turn, make a difference in the lives of others, thus creating a ripple effect.

“But financially, things would not go the way I had planned,” says Nxesi. “I had to let go of my dream to study medicine as the funds were not sufficient for a medicine qualification and this resulted in me dropping biochemistry and microbiology in my 2nd year of study. Although I did not get the benefit of encouragement that a youngster in a similar situation could have received today, I was not discouraged. I nonetheless proceeded with my BSc, majoring in Mathematics and Chemistry. Looking back at my initial dreams, I would probably have been working with teams researching for a CoViD-19 vaccine today. With Mathematics and Chemistry for majors, my only pathway, by default, was into teaching. But I have no regrets because I made a success of it. On completion of my degree, I taught at some schools and, from 1993, I was made Head of Department at Siyakhula Secondary School in the Eastern Cape.”

This powerhouse championed the formation of the Border Region Mathematics and Physical Sciences Association, in which a group of teachers, herself included, picked promising students and tutored them thoroughly in Mathematics. Nxesi was uncomfortable that Ghanaians were perceived as best teachers of Mathematics. She had to prove otherwise.

“Over time, schools in the Border region learned that Wednesday was an exchange day on which I would go to one school and another teacher would come to our school to teach Standards 8, 9 &10. We generated good results at their schools in Zwelitsha and Khuliwe. In 1995, I got a post at the Daveyton College of Education – teaching Mathematics. From 1997 I started to consult to the Department of Education’s Presidential Education Initiative, that was focused on strengthening skills of Mathematics teachers. In collaboration with the Joint Education Trust (JET), we managed to raise funds for this programme, in about 12 countries, internationally.”

In 1998, she was appointed a Deputy Chief Education Specialist: Teacher Supply, Utilisation and Development in the Department of Education’s Directorate for Teacher Development. She later got promoted to Chief Education Specialist. In 1999 she was promoted to Director: Teacher Development, a position she would serve on until 2004. In that capacity, she initiated projects with her team, key among which was putting in place a qualification to upgrade the National Primary Teachers Certificate. “Close to 10,000 teachers qualified and got upgraded. I focused on policy and enhancing quality and the professionalisation of teachers. Under the political leadership of the late Minister Kader Asmal, I initiated the National Teaching Awards, a project which remains in place today.”

When personal and organisational philosophies intersect

“Working with the Chief Director of the time, and driven by my love for Maths and Science, my team continued to oversee the training of all mathematics and science teachers, upgrading their qualifications. That firmly prepared me for the ETDP SETA, which, till today, champions equipping teachers to become better teachers. This has intersected seamlessly with my philosophy to give a better life to today’s youth and future generations, hence pushing the agenda of education. Education is about changing mindsets as there is no surgery for distorted minds.”

She strongly believes that people must support other people and educate at least one person in a family. “I did the same in my family,” says the mother of four – two of whom have since passed on. She believes she is doing a good job of balancing her professional and personal lives. “My daughter is a civil engineer and my son is studying for a diploma Small Business Development. I have also taken it upon myself to ensure that I support family members towards acquiring an education. I am a firm believer that it is only through education that the shackles of poverty can be unlocked.”

Having reached 60 years of age, she wants to retire before she turns 65. In the meantime, she wants to continue supporting government’s priorities. “I also want to spend my leisure time on the betterment of education, policy and in advancing the 4IR agenda. I like doing things differently to realise bigger goals.”

One thing that people do not know about her is that “I am deeply self-confident. I know what I need to achieve and can be a bit stubborn in the pursuit of my goals. But I am accommodative of the views of other people. I thrive on progress and need to see results. When you work with me, we must succeed in what we’ve set out to achieve. If you fail to help me to help others, I leave you behind.”

Solidly qualified to lead the ETDP SETA

After completing her BSc, majoring in Mathematics and Chemistry at Fort Hare, Nxesi went on to obtain a Higher Education Diploma at the same institution before completing a B Ed post-graduate degree at the University of the Witwatersrand. She would later attain an Honours in Public Administration at Stellenbosch University and a Master’s in Business Leadership at the University of South Africa’s School of Business Leadership. She is currently enrolled for a doctoral degree in Business Administration with the same school.

Her competencies include Management and Leadership (DBL), strategic planning, execution and implementation, corporate governance, financial/accounting oversight, and stakeholder management.

Alongside leading the ETDP SETA, she served as a Council and Senate Member and Human Resource Council Member (HRC) at the Central University of Technology (CUT). She sits on the Advisory Committee of the Public Service Training Forum (PSTF) which is chaired by the Minister of Public Service and Administration. Nxesi was the Chairperson of the SETA CEOs Forum until September 2018, and she was re-elected Deputy Chairperson of the SETA CEOs Forum. She was also a Council member of Higher Education (CHE) until 2018.

Her Head of Marketing and Communication, Ms Anna-Joy Motene has this to say: “The CEO’s leadership style is one of a kind which continues to take the ETDP SETA to greater heights. She has high expectations of those she works with and expects nothing but commitment to the call of serving South Africans. She leads with empathy and honesty. As a woman leader, leading in this era where we continue to strive for the emancipation and freedom of fellow women, many of us look up to her and continue to learn by the day. The wisdom and insight she imparts is one which many of us regard as an opportunity right now and right next to us to appreciate and benefit from.” Nxesi credits the success of this SETA to her strong team of supporting professionals.

Always committed to human development, Nxesi subscribes to the notion that “holistic type of training develops a person and frees them from any kind of dependency”.

Co-written by Khutso Moleko, Digital Communication Consultant and
‘Mateboho Green, Manager: Corporate Communications at Universities South Africa.