Comparing apples with oranges: Comment on the Umalusi research


Marietta van Rooyen

In the early nineties the slogan for educational and training reform was "From sweeper to engineer.'. One of the best examples at the time of this slogan was the CEO of ESKOM, Ian McRae, who started his career as an apprentice and ended up as an engineer managing the entire organization. A beautiful dream indeed.

In view of the fact that only a small percentage of all learners ever go to university (2,5%), it is clear that we are misleading ourselves about the dream of preparing all our learners for higher education.

Umalusi?s recent publication on the comparison of certain Grade 12 school subjects and similar N3 college subjects leaves a lot unsaid. The main conclusions seem to be foregone conclusions and come as no surprise. It is too early to evaluate the new NQF qualifications, so the research concentrates on the comparison with the old, outgoing courses at colleges.

By the researchers? own admittance, a study of the relevance of the qualifications for workplace skills is also not included. This omission can be understood in the light of the fact that few college graduates (at least on the technical side) are employed by companies, thus making it obvious that theoretical training on its own is not in demand.

The lack of foresight on the part of both industry and government, in not training apprentices once they finished their theoretical training, is of course also to blame for the present shortage of trades-trained people.

Apples and Oranges?

On 1 March 2006 Umalusi published a research paper called "Apples and oranges? A comparison of school and college subjects.' The reason for this research is given as

".an attempt to understand the relative standard of different courses in four subjects offered at FET colleges and high schools in South Africa, and to understand the extent to which these different courses prepare learners for higher education .'

The research focused on Mathematics, Science, English and Hospitality subjects offered at schools on higher and standard grade, and at colleges on N3 level. Not surprisingly, the researchers found that

1. the N3 subjects have no "equivalence' to the school subjects, and

2. N3 does not prepare learners for higher education.

The N3 course at technical college is only the theoretical underpinning knowledge required by artisans; it was never meant to give anybody access to tertiary education. What is more, learners were never issued a full qualification (trade) certificate unless they could prove that they had completed their apprenticeships and passed their trade tests at Ndlela (COTT).

Some background

Over the past 25 years vocational education has been suffering from neglect and gross mismanagement by both the present and the past governments. Although the technical colleges were administered provincially, changes in curriculum were usually initiated from the national government offices.

The curriculum for technical occupations was never reviewed in more than 20 years and institutional (practical) training was totally neglected.

Obviously the students of technical colleges emerged with only one third of a dated qualification and were not welcomed by employers who were expected to look after the further development of these learners. Where technical trades are offered the employers prefer to take in matriculants with the required language skills and then send them to FET colleges for the theoretical subjects.

The findings from the Umalusi research belittle the trades qualifications as well as vocational qualifications and make them look less than what they are. Because it is common knowledge that South Africa is suffering from a shortage of tradesmen and women, and that artisans from South Africa are much sought after and actively recruited by other countries, my discussion will focus on the technical training subjects researched, namely mathematics and applied science.

Let us look at the above two research findings separately:

The N3 subjects have no "equivalence' to the school subjects

The research may have been more significant if the aim was to compare the entire vocational qualification, including institutional and workplace training as well as the trade test. In the publication the research team themselves admit that they may be comparing half apples with whole oranges, as only the theory of the vocational qualifications was considered.

Our associate, T.C. Botha, noted after attending a feedback session on the research:

The team felt that if you compared apples with oranges, each has a place and would be important in its own right depending on the objective of the qualification. When comparing apples with half apples, it means that the qualification largely covers the same material, but with substantially fewer demands for cognitive ability. My gut feel is that they do not compare, I agree with the results of the research team.

The NATED curriculums were supposed to be reviewed from time to time to ensure that they prepared apprentices for the occupational needs of their trades. In the engineering courses this never happened in more than 20 years. The subjects did not address the needs of a modern artisan and so the employers training artisans had to do additional training to boost the theoretical knowledge of their apprentices.

After the theoretical training, learners were supposed to be employed in apprenticeships in workplaces, where they would have applied theoretical knowledge in their trades. This is where critical skills such as communication, team work and problem-solving would be learned.

The Umalusi research focuses on some subjects and does not take into account that the four subjects in an apprentice training programme are supposed to complement one another. For example, in some trades there was no need for chemistry knowledge, and where the need arose, this knowledge was included in the trade theory subject, such as is the case with battery chemicals for electricians. The four technical subjects have to be seen as a group.

In addition, the gradual build-up of knowledge from N1 to N3 was extremely important. As a mathematics teacher in the colleges I know that the mathematics examination papers on N3 level included knowledge from N1 and N2, and were not only based on the N3 syllabus. Thus the N1 to N3 subjects that are offered in one year should also be considered as a whole.

When one considers that many of the learners in technical colleges left school because they could not pass mathematics, it becomes clear that the lecturers at these colleges had their work cut out for them to motivate and retain their mathematics students.

N3 does not prepare learners for higher education

As for the second finding, it also comes as no surprise. Nobody ever regarded the N3 certificate issued after one trimester at a college as a full qualification. In the first place it did not contain any languages and in the second place the content did not lend itself to getting access to higher education. However, Unisa and other universities did give access to fully qualified artisans with at least an N5 qualification.

In my own experience as a mathematics teacher at colleges I can also attest that my college math knowledge up to N6 level helped me to get distinctions in mathematics in my first year at Unisa.

Again, after attending the feedback session, T.C. Botha comments:

With only 36 credits allocated to fundamentals for the "vocational' qualifications, I do not believe it is feasible to expect learners to be prepared for university studies. Schools are spending almost all their efforts on fundamental type learning, while in the world of work the efforts are concentrated on skilling people to allow contribution to the business objectives.


The question now arises: What was gained by the research done by more than 40 people from further and higher education and training institutions? Some of the underpinning work will give insight into future curriculum planning imperatives, so it is said.

I can only applaud the main message from this research, namely that urgent attention needs to be paid to curriculum development in South Africa. However, I would have thought it obvious to everyone.