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Are 60% of South Africa’s vocational colleges dysfunctional?

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  • A South African member of parliament said that 60% of the country's vocational colleges "remain dysfunctional".

  • The claim was based on the pass rate for one qualification from 2014 and 2015. These students make up a minority of college enrolments.

  • Experts say that the pass rate is just one indicator that needs to be considered to determine if a college is working.

In a speech delivered in South Africa’s National Assembly, Democratic Alliance member of parliament Yusuf Cassim said “there is no redemption while 60% of our TVET colleges remain dysfunctional”.

The DA’s shadow deputy minister in the presidency: planning, monitoring and evaluation told Africa Check that this statement was based on a reply to a parliamentary question.

His colleague, MP Andricus van der Westhuizen, had used the statistic in a speech during the budget debate in May last year.

Does their number check out?

Data from 2014 & 2015

Van der Westhuizen, a member of the portfolio committee on higher education and training, said he defined “dysfunctionality” as a pass rate of 40% and lower in one qualification offered at technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges – the National Certificate Vocational (NCV) Level 4.

“These examinations are at the level of Grade 12 or a matric. Schools are often classified as being ‘dysfunctional’ if 40% or less of their matriculants pass.” He provided a link to a summary of research on dysfunctional schools, which quotes a 2005 PhD thesis that defines dysfunctional schools as having a pass rate of 40% or less in the matric exam.

He said the claim was based on information provided by former higher education and training minister Blade Nzimande in a written reply to a parliamentary question in February last year. Nzimande provided the pass rates per TVET college for the November NCV Level 4 exams.

According to Van der Westhuizen’s count, 39 of 50 public TVET colleges (78%) achieved a pass rate of 40% and below in 2014. In 2015, it was 28 (56%). The average of these percentages, he said, came to 67%.

While none of these figures matches the 60% in Cassim’s claim, Van der Westhuizen said: “The point we need to be able to convey is that our colleges are in serious need of attention.”

NCV Level 4 students not the majority

There were 702,383 students enrolled in public TVETs in 2014, according to the 2014 Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in SA report from the department of higher education and training. Of these, 166,433 (23.7%) were NCV students.

There are three NCV levels – Level 2 (at the same level as Grade 10), Level 3 (at the level of Grade 11) and Level 4.

Level 4 students who wrote exams in 2014 and were eligible to complete their qualification in that year were in the minority when compared with students at other levels. They made up just 17% of NCV students who wrote exams in 2014. These figures exclude students who “wrote individual subjects, but who did not qualify to complete the relevant qualifications in 2014”.

Differences within TVET qualifications

Asked why he regarded NCV Level 4 pass rates as an appropriate measure of TVET colleges’ functionality, Van der Westhuizen said: “The NCV is an exit exam, similar to the matric exam being an exit exam from the mainstream school system. And it is at the same level as matric ... The NCV is a very important qualification. I believe that it should be the benchmark to measure the quality of our TVET colleges.”

But the pass rate for the NCV fails to take into account the differences within qualifications, according to Volker Wedekind, an associate professor in vocational education at the University of Nottingham in the UK.

“The NCV includes fields ranging from early childhood development to mechatronics. If the data are not disaggregated, the pass rate is not a particularly useful indicator of whether a college is dysfunctional,” he said.

Wedekind, a visiting associate professor in the Centre for Researching Education and Labour at Wits, said the pass rate might, for example, reflect a problem with one subject as a result of a shortage of teachers. However, “this does not necessarily mean a college is dysfunctional”.

He said a general assessment based on the pass rate “doesn’t help us work out where we need to intervene”.

Wedekind said that, in addition to pass and throughput rates, he would consider the stability of the management team as well as governance and financial management when determining whether a college, or one of its campuses, was functional.

He would also consider which students a college was accepting as some only accepted students with a matric, in which case you would expect better student performance.

Pass rates alone not a 'good barometer'

Sam Zungu, general secretary of the SA College Principals Organisation, agrees that pass rates alone are not a “good barometer” for the functionality of TVET colleges.

He would consider certification rates (completion), retention rates (whether students remain for the duration of the qualification for which they have enrolled) as well as throughput rates (whether students are able to progress to the next level of a qualification) within the context of the success rates in a particular province.

Based on the most recently available completion rates, the department argues that the DA’s claim is not accurate because the results have improved.

However, it was unable to confirm by the time of publication whether the NCV completion rates it gave Africa Check for 2016 and last year were directly comparable to the pass rates contained in the parliamentary reply.

Conclusion: DA MP's claim is misleading

Cassim’s claim refers to the state of all TVET colleges but relies on examination pass rates for one level of the NCV. It doesn’t take into consideration pass rates for other NCV levels or non-NCV qualifications offered by TVETs, which make up the majority of enrolments.

There isn’t agreement that pass rates alone are a reliable indicator of dysfunctionality and experts argue that a number of other indicators are important to consider.

It also depends on data that are three to four years old to make the claim that these colleges “remain” dysfunctional.

The claim is therefore misleading.

Why are pass rates so low?

Zungu says pass rates are low because “students aren’t ready” when they get to TVET colleges. “You cannot microwave someone from 30% to a distinction.”

He says academic support programmes are key to improving student performance but because of human resources shortages, student support services units tend to focus on financial support to the detriment of academic support.

The NCV is a resource heavy qualification, according to Zungu. “Students need practical experience, otherwise they battle.”

But because of tight budgets in the face of increased enrolments, students don’t have access to the latest equipment. This contributes to a curriculum that is skewed towards theory even though it is supposed to be more practical.

Asked what causes low pass rates, Wedekind identified three areas of concern:

  • Curriculum: Students who struggle with academic subjects at school might choose the TVET route only to find that they are still required to pass languages and maths. “There is a misalignment in the system because of the strong academic expectations at colleges.”

  • Students: Colleges are funded and pressured into taking in a large number of students. Some of these students are not making an active choice to enrol. They might do it because a bursary is available or because they consider it to be their only option. This might affect their commitment levels.

  • Teachers: There have been some attempts to upgrade their qualifications but “a significant number” are not qualified educators and may lack the skills to support students.

The DHET concedes that the pass rates are not satisfactory. “We continue to work on this. We must be cognizant of the fact that many students struggle to make the transition from schools into TVET colleges, just as they do in universities as well. The environmental and adjustment challenges impact on the first-year performance, which then impacts on subsequent years. Better preparation of students entering the NCV is now the focus of attention.”

Van der Westhuizen says students need to be assessed when they enrol to determine at what level they can benefit from what colleges offer. He also believes there should be “some form of alignment” between the required pass rates for the NCV and matric as the required rates for the NCV are higher.

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