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Merlyn Mehl: mentor and inspiration
Wed, 30 Jan 2013 15:09
By Jim Freeman - Skills Portal
Professor Merlyn Claude Mehl held numerous post-graduate tertiary qualifications including in the fields of physics, philosophy and cognitive development. He was equally proud of being South Africa’s first black physicist and being part of the legendary group of anti-apartheid academics from the University of the Western Cape that included Prof. Richard van der Ross.
Prof Mehl was Peninsula Technikon’s first chancellor, a post he continued to hold even after forming Triple L (life-long learning) Academy in 1998.
Although Prof Mehl was primarily an academic, he was a fierce proponent of life-long learning and a staunch advocate of the National Skills Development Strategy – especially in its earlier phases – and how it could simultaneously affect educational change and economic redress.
He firmly believed the strategy needed to be underpinned by a National Qualifications Framework that embraced vocational awards and was thus one of the first evangelists for the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO).
A regular speaker at Seta (sector education and training authority) as well as Government-sponsored skills conferences, Prof Mehl believed that “Seta's have presented us with huge opportunities to push the socio-economic and intellectual agenda with inventive strategies”.
Professor Mehl started Triple L “because I felt there were things in education and training that were simply not being done. I thought it was a glorious opportunity to break out of the institutional mindset I’d been in by teaching at university or working for non-Government organisations for almost 30 years.
“I felt that, given my experience, I would try to make a difference. It’s nice to get contracts from this Government department or that Seta, but the important thing as an education and training provider is to help to drive the development agenda and not be driven by it.”
Prof Mehl was given to pithy, pertinent quotes one the subjects of vocational learning and its attendant policies, programmes and structures. These are some of my favourites obtained during interviews for SKILLS PORTAL:
• On the fundamental flaw of traditional education institutions trying to impart vocational skills to learners – “You don’t learn to drive a car by reading a book. The learning is in the driving.”
• The main difference between learning and teaching – “Learning is what happens to you. Teaching is what somebody does to you.”
• About the relevance of traditional education to overcoming unemployment – “One of the problems of the education system is that children enter schools and learn subjects. They matriculate and, if fortunate, go on to a tertiary institution where they take these subjects to a higher level and obtain a qualification in a discipline. However, in most instances the “real” world has moved beyond disciplinary learning.
“As the world’s economy has developed, so the knowledge base of the various economic sectors has become more complex. Learners emerge from tertiary institutions and complain that they are unable to find unemployment: it’s not because there are no jobs to be had but because they have not acquired sufficiently high levels of the skills that are required.
“There are plenty of jobs – learners have just not been prepared for them.”
• On the Setas’ broader role with regards to workplace-relevant learning – “Few organisations operate within the parameters of a single discipline but are fed by a virtual stew of intellects. When applied successfully, intellect becomes competence or skill. But not every organisation follows the same recipe and – very often – one organisation will add an extra dash of project management, a dollop of enterprise resource planning or a pinch of marketing as the availability of ingredients dictates. “The Setas are trying to quantify how much is an extra dash, dollop and pinch. To take the metaphor further, the Setas are like a franchisor that has to ensure that the Spur in Nelspruit provides pretty much the same bill of fare as the Spur in Hermanus.”
Apart from holding several directorships and memberships of professional bodies over the years, Prof Mehl had a longstanding relationship with the Association for Skills Development in South Africa (ASDSA).
“Prof Mehl was a mentor and inspiration to all of us in skills development,” maintains ASDSA chairperson Gill Connellan. “He was that unique academic who was able to step outside the ivory tower of academia and enter the ‘real’ world."
“He saw the big picture of vocational learning … how it would best serve the national transformation agenda by empowering individuals and communities in a sustainable business environment.”
MerSeta chief executive Raymond Patel said today he was mourning the passing of a father-figure, friend and mentor.
“Merlyn was an intellectual but also a humanist,” said Dr Patel, who met Prof Mehl in 1979. “He was one of those wonderfully stimulating people; very, very smart but also possessing the gift of being able to relate to people around him.”
Skills Portal extends its condolences to his wife Natalie and son Graham.
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