FRANCIS PETERSEN | Full potential of TVET colleges needs to be appreciated

University education not the only route to success and fulfilling career choice

Technical and vocational education and training colleges offer specialised and career-oriented programmes which can set up successful and fulfilling careers for many young people.
Technical and vocational education and training colleges offer specialised and career-oriented programmes which can set up successful and fulfilling careers for many young people.
Image: Garth Stead

At our 26 public universities, we have become accustomed to the start of each academic year being marked by a deluge of first-year applications – with numbers  completely out of kilter with the reality of available space. At the University of the Free State, for instance, we had 250,000 applications for the 8,100 available  spaces. An overwhelming interest in a university education that simply cannot be met by our existing institutions and facilities. 

The solution does not necessarily lie in  building new universities or even expanding online offerings – but rather in exploiting the full potential of  technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. These colleges have a vital role to play in equipping potential job seekers for the requirements of the world of work and ensuring a more integrated economy.

There is, however, a prevailing perception that universities offer a far superior education. This narrow perspective fails to acknowledge the potential of certain individuals to thrive in non-academic pursuits, such as dedicated entrepreneurship, vocational training, or purely creative endeavours. 

On the other hand, TVET colleges are often (wrongly) seen as a last resort for students who have not met the entry requirements at universities. 

One should by no means deny the indispensable role of universities in equipping workers for the job market. But  a university education is not the sole measure of  intelligence, capability or potential, nor is it the only route to success.

 Universities are marked by a more in-depth academic focus.  TVET colleges, on the other hand, focus on providing practical, hands-on skills  directly applicable in the workplace, with a clear emphasis on  specific trades and occupations. In both instances, successful graduates are prepared for careers that can be equally fulfilling and lucrative.

In SA, there is a growing demand for skilled workers in construction, manufacturing and technology. There is also a dire need for scarce artisanal skills such as boilermakers, plumbers, and electricians.  On top of this, the rapid pace of technological advancement has created new opportunities that do not necessarily require a university education.

Skills such as coding, digital marketing and graphic design can be acquired through online and self-directed learning. In the end, the private sector and industry need a combination of skills, trades and knowledge to ensure a varied, integrated economy.

The skewed distribution of university enrolments  results in an unfortunate opportunity cost for the wider economy. Despite concerted efforts by universities to ensure the success of  students, it is estimated that around 40% of all first-year students  do not complete their degrees.

A major reason for this is that they make uninformed and ill-considered study choices.

The TVET sector in SA has faced historic challenges, with several attempts over the years to  rectify them.  TVET colleges are  still struggling with the implementation of effective management, efficient performance and becoming institutions of first choice. In some cases, they are also battling with inadequate infrastructure and facilities.

An overarching challenge remains the creation of a better alignment between education and training and the needs of the world of work. 

 Higher education, science and technology minister Blade Nzimande has been urging students to consider TVET colleges. This, together with extended government learnerships and internships for TVET graduates, points to a real commitment towards strengthening this sector and establishing it as a driver in addressing inequality, unemployment and poverty.

About 500,000 students are accommodated in SA’s 50 registered public TVET colleges. This number is still substantially lower than the National Development Plan’s target of having 1.25-million students enrolled in the TVET sector by 2030.

The root of many of the warped perceptions around technical and vocational training can be traced back to the apartheid era. This resulted in very few qualified black artisans in particular sectors.  Any efforts to strengthen our  TVET sector will have to start with addressing the archaic perceptions around it.

Strengthening our TVET sector is, however, only part of the solution. A major challenge remains guiding  SA youth on career paths that resonate with their inherent skills, interests and aptitudes and that aligns with job market realities. It is essential that more attention is paid to career preparation on a basic education level.

In most cases, despite a less-than-ideal basic education background, SA youth have the potential and tenacity to make a success of higher education studies.  What they do need, however, is proper guidance and strong viable options to make informed, well-considered choices about their career paths.


  • Petersen is vice-chancellor and principal of the University of the Free State

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