SOUTH Africa’s 50 Further Education and Training (FET) colleges continue to bumble along and despite receiving new funding and direction a week ago, ultimate success will depend on far more than Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande taking a more powerful role.

Letting provincial departments administer vocational training has clearly not worked, but there is no guarantee shifting accountability to the centre is the silver bullet to solve South Africa’s education ills. A couple of key ingredients are missing, not least of which is the prominent involvement of the private sector.

A recent amendment to the FET Colleges Act has seen accountability shift from the provincial to the national department in a move aimed to improve the output and standard of vocational and occupational training in South Africa.

The root cause of the problem, of course, goes back to the decision by this government to close training colleges 10 years ago. If more than half the registered nurses retire in the next 10 years, as they are expected to, South Africa’s entire healthcare system could become unhinged because not enough nurses have been trained in the 10 years since the colleges were closed. The same holds true for other colleges, where the shortage of teachers is now being addressed in part by the reopening of three former teacher training colleges next year.

South Africa has one of the worst unemployment and youth unemployment rates in the world, but it is the poor education of those between the ages of 18 and 24 that is most troubling. More than 70% of the about 3-million people in this group do not even have a Grade 12. Is it any surprise the unemployment rate for young people is close to 50%?

Getting education right is critical to denting the problem as the major issue is the lack of skills or opportunities for those unable to complete Grade 12, or get in to college.

Countries such as Germany have greased their economic wheels via a dual education system that harnesses the private sector. The secret is that apprentices spend a minimum of half their time doing real world training in a company.

The South African government is finally making some progress by moving administration out of the hands of the many incompetent provincial departments, though the end product will look nothing like what it needs to if the private sector is forgotten about.

Public FET Colleges in South Africa are already subsidised by the State to the tune of about R6bn a year for the 400,000 students there, but more money will be needed. The national Education Department’s new plan acknowledges this as the numbers of students are meant to increase to 4-million by 2030.

Pass rates at FETs have been poor — only 57% of those doing trade tests pass — but at least this is up from levels of 12% seen five years ago. Results are, however, still shrouded in secrecy, but the sheer extent of their modesty should have been anticipated due to the misaligned programmes and unskilled teachers.

Businesses have rightly complained programmes do not suit their needs. The problem lies at the door of provincial education departments, many of which can’t even get even basics, such as delivering textbooks, right.

It is no secret the higher education landscape still reflects apartheid planning and the disparities between poor and privileged institutions. But over-riding internal university structures — such as the council — as the new rules will allow, is not the way to go about it. Improved administration is needed via a better structure and better appointments, with oversight from the centre.

South Africa remains a fair distance away from getting it right if it does not involve unions and business via a unified chamber of commerce and unified apprenticeship contracts — and companies must have a say in the curriculum.

Placing universities under year-long administration processes is highly disruptive and more draconian laws to allow this via the Higher Education and Training Laws Amendment Bill, which has passed through the National Assembly, are concerning.

The Council on Higher Education, which advises Nzimande, the Communist Party general secretary, has complained it was not even consulted about the amendment, as have university councils themselves.

The bigger picture is the fact South African schools prepare students for university. There is a clear need for more vocational training colleges that are linked to workplace opportunities due to the poor schooling system.