Some of the most satisfying experiences of my working life have come from my appointment at North-West University, Potchefstroom, South Africa. This year my visit coincided with the 20th anniversary of the new South African constitution – the event that marked the end of apartheid and the introduction of universal suffrage. In commemoration, the university held an international conference with academics meeting to discuss the link between constitutional reform and human rights. I attended the opening keynote which was delivered by an eminent South African professor. His first question came from a white female academic who asked if the speaker thought the country would be a safe, welcoming and good place to live for her grandchildren and, in turn, their children. The answer was measured and tentative. The professor argued that there was a lot wrong with the country but many reasons to be optimistic. Much progress had been made and there was now a rigorous debate about the forward direction and continual questioning by a determined press.
As an outsider my answer would have been more positive. First, the question was asked openly to a mixed audience in a university which twenty-five years ago was whites only. The predecessor Potchefstroom University was the intellectual heart of apartheid; this year saw the appointment of the first black vice-chancellor. My students, training managers in their 30s and 40s seem completely at ease with the rainbow nation and with each other. That is remarkable progress. The second point is that the question was honest and profound. South Africa is ready to debate – everyone seems to have an opinion and be prepared to express it. They are all well aware of the problems of crime, corruption and poor infrastructure. As the eminent professor put it: “possibly what will unite us all is our antipathy to President Zuma”. Their debate is about important social issues. One legacy of apartheid is that the nation has developed a strong moral compass. Here I write as one profoundly depressed about the level of debate in the UK as we enter the run-up to a general election.
Now all the above will appear very starry-eyed to my South African friends. Let me therefore consider the dominant social problem. According to the 2011 census, 3.2 million South African young people between the ages of 15- and 24 were not in employment, education or training (NEETs) – nearly half of them had no schooling beyond the age of 16. Now the UK and South Africa have similar populations (64 million and 53 million respectively) so their NEET problem is three times ours. The difference is that their problem is very visibly evident in the townships whereas ours has become much more acute over the last decade and is more diffuse. A lot of us know young people who are struggling to find work.
‘Policies for skills and employment’ was a subject of one of my lectures at North-West University this April. What I argued was that skills development should be considered in three stages. The first is purpose. Here there is a need to determine whether government policy is aimed at developing skills to compete in the global economy or developing skills to help disadvantaged sections of the community (particularly young people) find work. The second stage is ideology – fundamentally do you believe that the government should intervene or withdraw? Here, the South African approach is firmly interventionist and the country has imposed compliance and reporting requirements and introduced a levy-grant system to ensure that firms undertake appropriate training. In the UK, by contrast, the coalition government’s policy is to ‘step back and give space to employers to take ownership of the skills agenda’. Those of us who have an economic background will see that South Africa is Keynesian and the UK neo-liberal in its economic philosophy.
It is the third stage – that of delivery – that the two countries have much in common. Both have a long way to go to translate their intentions into effective action. South Africa has established a network of SETAs (Sector Education and Training Authorities) with a range of responsibilities for planning and influencing training in organisations through compliance, reporting and funding. They are not held in high esteem by many trainers. In the UK by contrast we have proceeded through a never-ending succession of schemes and initiatives. Most are not around long enough for them to acquire a reputation and for their effectiveness to be judged.
So a comparison between South African and UK skills policy provides much food for thought. Sadly my appointment at North-West University comes to an end this September. My contact with a country that began with anti-apartheid marches in South Wales ended in a seminar with excellent students fully reflecting the diversity of their rainbow nation. I’ll settle for that.