The way unit standards are developed is a major problem



The cornerstone of the Skills Development system is assessment of learners against unit standards. These determine the content and to some extent, the quality of training programmes. In theory, learners should be assessed against unit standards and if they are deemed to be competent, they will earn credits which are recorded on the National Learner Record Database.

As the learner accrues credits, he or she will eventually be able to move up from one NQF level to the next in a system of lifelong learning. Nothing wrong with that! The system is reputed to be successful in Australia and New Zealand as well as a number of other countries, so what is the problem in South Africa?

Well, apart from the bureaucracy, one of the most serious weaknesses in the system lies in the way that unit standards and qualifications are developed.

These are developed by Standard Generating Bodies (SGBs) and are posted on the SAQA website for public comment before being ratified. This puts the onus on training providers to check for new unit standards and to comment if they find problems with a unit standard. This is putting the cart before the horse!

Once a unit standard has been published, there are vested interests and egos become involved. Changing it is never going to be easy! Rather establish needs and seek views first to ensure that the unit standard is properly drafted in the first place! Then keep those stakeholders in the loop by aksing them to review draft unit standards before they are published.

The core of the problem is that people who serve on SGBs are not paid for their efforts - the writing of unit standards is done by volunteers! This cuts out many would-be contributors who simply cannot afford to work for nothing and it results in people with vested interests stepping forward to volunteer! Unfortunately this is reflected in the quality of the unit standards, many of which are poorly written, impractical and do not address what is required (e.g. unit standard Nos. 11286 and 13953: Institute disciplinary action and Apply the principles of situational leadership to a business unit).

Worse, for many subjects there are still no unit standards and to compound the problem even further, unit standards expire after three years! For example 13953 - Apply principles of situational leadership to a business unit has now been replaced with 242824: Apply leadership concepts in a work situation. While the new US is undoubtedly better, it means that training providers who had written leadership courses on the old unit standard will now have to completely redesign them. This will probably take at least 80 hours of work - cost that at R400 an hour - R32000. One has to sell a lot of courses to be able to make up this cost!

As mentioned earlier, one of the cornerstones of the system is assessment against unit standards. But, how does one assess a learner against unit standards if they do not exist or are no longer valid?!

Course development

SAQA has published guidelines for developing learning programmes in which they recommend that the training provider begins by analysing the qualification and unit standards before writing the training programme. This is all very well, but what about established training courses which have been run successfully for years but for which there are no unit standards?

Another problem lies with assessments. The requirements are stringent and involve observation of the learner performing tasks as well as the review and marking of portfolios of evidence - a time consuming and therefore costly process. While training providers try to build assessment into the training, this is not possible in every instance. For example in a two day course it is seldom possible to afford every learner the opportunity to do a role play and therefore demonstrate competence in the skills being assessed.

Understandably, employers are not prepared to pay for assessments unless they perceive there to be a benefit. For short (one or two day) courses the cost of assessment is prohibitive relative to the cost of the training itself. Therefore to make assessments cost effective, these are normally done against a qualification or a cluster of unit standards.

Accreditation of training courses

This puts some training providers, especially those who offer industrial relations courses, in the situation whereby good courses cannot be accredited because there are no suitable unit standards against which to assess learners. For example while there are some labour relations unit standards, these are in the main directed at HR practitioners and officials of the CCMA and bargaining councils, not line management - the very people who need IR training the most!

In order to receive full accreditation, training providers are required to do assessments but how can one do assessments if there are no unit standards? This results in situations whereby training providers seek out and build training programmes around badly crafted unit standards. For example US 19952 Establish basic principles of evidence in mediation. One leads evidence in a disciplinary enquiry, an arbitration or a court of law but not in mediation!

The irony of it all is that the bureaucracy in the system is supposed to be improving quality standards. The priorities are all wrong.

Surely the most important priority if we are to gear the system on unit standards is to develop appropriate well constructed qualifications and unit standards? This should be and should have been done at the outset. Wouldn?t the most sensible and pragmatic solution be to put the writing of unit standards out to tender and to pay experts to do the job quickly and professionally?