State in denial of despair of jobless as it threatens employers - Business Day, 21st January 2013.

In his fortnightly column in Business Day, the Institute's CEO, John Kane-Berman, argued that it was premature to invest in further tertiary education infrastructure when the South African school system was not providing sufficient quality candidates to saturate the existing system.

Neither minerals minister Susan Shabangu nor the Congress of South African Unions (Cosatu) could have chosen a better moment to dramatise their remoteness from reality. The labour market has just been flooded with yet another crop of school leavers with few opportunities for employment or further education.

Yet Shabangu’s threats to Anglo American Platinum and Cosatu’s attempts to whip up strikes on farms undermine the employment-generating potential of both mining and farming, which together account for almost 1-million jobs.

If you try hard, you can find silver linings in last year’s matric results — more maths passes, for example.

But there is little to justify the self-congratulation among politicians responsible for schooling. Not even the 136,047 national senior certificate candidates who obtained "bachelor" passes entitling them to read for degrees at university are all qualified to do so. Many require tuition at university to make up for their poor schooling. The University of Johannesburg, to name but one, is budgeting R100m this year to bring new students up to university level. High dropout rates suggest that students and universities alike are battling to cope with the effects of poor schooling.

The government is thus putting the cart before the horse in planning to open two new universities in the next two years. Indeed, far from confronting poor schooling, the government is kicking the problems upstairs. Nor is this the only way in which it is saddling universities with additional responsibilities to make up for its own failures. Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande is also demanding that the universities help him fix his further education and training (FET) colleges.

Although their enrolments have increased, these are far from the institutions of choice Nzimande wants. The fact that applicants for first-year university places this year outnumber the places on offer by so large a margin (sometimes five to one) suggests that tens of thousands of students not remotely qualified to go to university have aspirations to do just that.

So Nzimande faces a huge task in making the FET colleges much more attractive. Greater university involvement may help, but at what cost to the quality of the universities?

What other institutions are available for post-school education? All the teacher training colleges were closed down or handed over to universities, although three will now be reopened. Nursing colleges produced only 7,391 nurses in 2011. The output of agricultural colleges is about 1,000 a year. The defence force offers about 5,000 skills development places. Sector education and training authorities offer 18,000 opportunities this year.

Apprenticeships have tripled in the past few years to perhaps 20,000, but our labour legislation is not conducive to fostering the growth of apprenticeships to anything like the number the economy requires.

There are many private institutions. But cost and the relative paucity of places on offer probably rule them out for most school-leavers.

Which leaves the labour market. Even if it is true that social grants, or income from crime, or the willingness of relatives to support unemployed people, keep many of them out of the labour market, there are also many people desperate to find work.

At the end of last year, 150,000 people applied for 90 trainee traffic police jobs in KwaZulu-Natal, of whom 34,000 were short-listed and 15,500 aged between 18 and 20 arrived in Pietermaritzburg, where seven died during fitness tests, evidently of heat exhaustion. In September 10,000 people turned up in Durban for 30 positions as learner firefighters.

In June 2011, dozens were hurt in a stampede when 10,000 people queued for 30 Transnet jobs in Bloemfontein. In February 2011, 30,000 people converged on Polokwane for 624 government jobs on offer. In September 2009, thousands showed up in Durban for 200 learner police jobs.

Shabangu’s threats to mining and Cosatu’s to farming seem oblivious of the reality revealed by these figures.

This article was originally published by Business Day on 21st January 2013.

 

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