UHURU Now: De-skilling and the Tertiary Sector

By Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize

UHURU NOW: what is to be done at our universities is a series of conversations by academics, thought-leaders and debaters, which seeks to archive contemporary dialogue on transformation and decolonisation at higher education institutions. The series aims to shift the discourse, introduce fresh ways of thinking and provide meaningful debate on issues around transformation in order to drive social change.

South African Statistician General Pali Lehohla recently reported that today South Africa’s youth are less skilled than their parents were prior to 1994. This news is not a surprise for anyone involved in both the basic and higher education sector.

Typically, our response to this frightening de-skilling of an entire generation is to point to the closing down of training colleges and other institutions of artisanal trade in the 1990s. We point out that the traditional universities have become the only choice for school leavers, even those that we argue ‘should not be at university’. The result is a massified university system with high dropout rates; and of those who do graduate, many will join the queue of unemployed graduates.

This analysis of the lop-sidedness of the tertiary sector is valid. However, it is built partly on two flawed premises. Firstly, that the model of the ‘traditional universities’ would be viable were it not massified by these students who should be in technikons learning trades. Secondly, it assumes that there is an objective relationship between a ‘full employment economy’ and ‘skills’.

There’s an assumption that in any economy you can have two tiers of skilling in the tertiary sector – one tier that produces people with technical trades, and another that produces office-type professionals. People from these two tiers are thus expected to fill up different productive functions in the economy.

This kind of skills bifurcation is false, and will not help South Africa in the long run. What South Africa, and Africa broadly, needs is to develop a new model tertiary institution that can fuse both technical capabilities as well as the analytical paper skills.

Quite simply, regardless of whether one has artisanal or ‘paper’ skills; African economies are characterised by job precarity and informality. Unless one has very specialised training, it is incredibly difficult to find sustainable employment in Africa. That is why migration and mobility in search of work opportunities remain a feature of African life.

Part of the issue is we must accept that an economy and ‘the markets’ are not fixed entities into which we can simply input ‘appropriate skilled individuals’. Economies are fluid and relative exchange relations, which expand and contract based on any number of factors.

What we need in South Africa then is a tertiary system that can produce the kind of graduate who has both the conceptual ability to see the economy as a fluid and non-objective entity that they can shape, as well as having the hard skills to move within that economy in practical ways.

The implications of this analysis for SA universities and technikons are clear. It makes no sense to produce engineers, accountants, doctors, technicians who cannot understand the relativity of the economy as a product of society.

Equally, it makes no sense for traditional universities to produce philosophers, historians, sociologists, social scientists who have no technical insight and are not trained to grapple with the physical nuts and bolts of a problem when Africa faces so many development questions.

There is a need for our tertiary sector to move towards pedagogic and curricula synthesis so that we can produce graduates that can ask the “higher” order socio-economic questions and get down to the dirty business of solving problems with their own hands.

This kind of graduate is a contextually-intelligent problem solver who values both theoretical reflections and practical application; they have the capacity to engage with both skills.

If we do not produce graduates of this kind, we face queues of the unemployed at all levels, as the South African economy remains static and incapable of greater labour absorption.

UHURU Now logo courtesy of ARTicles by Sarah Rose de Villiers.

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Contributors

Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize

Nomalanga Mkhize is a historian based at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth. She currently holds an NIHSS Sam Moyo Postdoctoral Fellowship at Rhodes University.

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