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Melany Kühn: Yes, there are alternatives to university for life after school

November 24, 2016

The 2016 academic year is drawing to a close and the pressure is definitely mounting on the class of 2016 to not only do well in the senior certificate examination (SCE), but also to gain entry to a university, obtain a degree (or two) and then proceed to find gainful employment and start contributing to the economy.

In an ideal world, that would probably be the way to go and is likely to yield great results. However, since we do not live in an ideal world, our reality looks a lot different.

The truth is that too many students, who enroll for a university degree, don’t actually finish. The Department of Higher Education in May this year released an in-depth report revealing that 47,9% of university students don’t finish their degrees.

According to the report, the highest drop-out rates are among black and coloured students, stating that only 11,9% of black students graduated after three years, and 32,1% left after their first year.

This creates huge challenges, not least of which is the cost associated with subsidies that don’t actually yield graduates. Furthermore, the psychological damage that is associated with the sense of failure on the part of the students cannot be ignored and inevitably has knock-on effects.

So why oh why are we, as parents, teachers, civil society so hell-bent on advocating for a university degree to be our children’s ticket out of poverty and the key to a better life?

Why are we not advocating for our children to be skilled in a trade? How about increasing the appeal and “sexiness” of being an artisan? If a young man or woman is trained as a welder, electrician or plumber, why does it have to stop at manual labour? Surely the qualified plumber can be further trained and mentored to start and own a plumbing business that creates further employment opportunities. None of this needs to happen at university.

There may not be formal jobs with corporate benefits for all our children, but there are lots of opportunities to “do work” and “render services”. We need to adjust our expectations of the employment sector and ensure our children are ready to respond to the need of the market.

Why are we not considering other institutions of higher learning as alternatives for further education and training after school? Yes, I agree that there are issues of concern around the quality of education received at FET Colleges, but these are not insurmountable. With a concerted effort from the Department of Higher Education, resources can be channeled into these institutions to enable them to raise the bar on higher education.

We also need to recognise as a society that we have a huge cohort of young people often referred to as NEETs (not in employment, education or training). They need to be absorbed into the employment sector and it is highly unlikely that they will ever obtain a university degree. Does this render them unemployable? Are they doomed to “minimum wage” jobs? Of course not.

Several organisations like the Chrysalis Academy in the Western Cape are doing sterling work, with a holistic approach to youth development that ultimately results in hundreds of young people being absorbed into work opportunities over a twelve month period every year. They are skilled, trained and developed in order to further compete for gainful employment and other developmental opportunities beyond their initial internships and many of them have become successful young adults.

Yes, a university degree certainly has its merits and appeal and some would argue that it significantly improves one’s chances of finding gainful employment. I don’t disagree. It’s just not the right avenue for every child who completes their schooling, even when the funds are available. Just because you can afford to send your child to university, does not necessarily mean that it’s the right option for your child’s career development or that their areas of interest will be best developed there. Specialised colleges, be it for technology and innovation, film, design, music or advertising to name a few, are able to grow, mentor, train and skill young people in their chosen fields. We just need to be open to other avenues of development.

As parents we need to recognise our children’s strengths, but also be acutely aware and comfortable with admitting when they are just not a suitable candidate for university. Let us not put further unnecessary pressure on our children. Let us investigate and explore alternatives for their development and really give them an opportunity to prosper, first time round.

2 Comments

  1. Yve
    November 26, 2016 - 10:01 am

    This is a brilliant article indeed and I agree to 100%. I am from Germany and in my home-country it is totally adequate to do an apprenticeship or go to a specialized school to learn a special trade {Berufsfachschule}.
    I guess not even half of the Matriculates {Abiturienten} are enrolling at some university in Germany. Furthermore only 50 % of the students are in a High School {Gymnasium} and graduate after grade 12.
    There are 23 % of students in a Middle School {Realschule} and these pupils will leave the school after grade 10, the rest of the students are enrolled in general schools {Hauptschule or Gesamtschule}.
    It is important to recognize and appreciate learners, who decide to rather learn a trade or do an apprenticeship and do not install into the mind of the youngsters that only a university degree will bring you somewhere in life.

    Reply
    • Mk
      November 28, 2016 - 4:51 pm

      Thank you Yve. Your positive feedback is highly appreciated. I hope that this type of thinking will spread like wildfire so that as a society we can begin to create alternatives for our youth, that will enable them to prosper.

      Reply

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