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artisan2Sunday Times Business Times reports that billions of rands earmarked by the National Skills Fund (NSF) for the development of badly needed artisans have been blown by the government on university students instead, says NSF CEO Mvuyisi Macikama.

"Our money has been spent for something other than the key areas we're supposed to be focusing on," he says.

SA is so short of artisans it is having to import them.

Universities, on the other hand, are churning out so many students with "soft" degrees that the market cannot absorb them.

Macikama said in the NSF's 2017-2018 annual report tabled in parliament this week that the department of higher education & training had taken R6.56bn from the NSF's accumulated surplus to pay for the government's no-fee increase promise to university students.

In 2016, NSF coffers were raided to the tune of R1.27bn, and this shot up to a whopping R5.28bn last year. Macikama says by 2019-2020 there will be no surplus left.

The NSF intended spending R1.5bn of this money on "reactivating" the capacity of state-owned enterprises like Eskom, Transnet, Denel and SAA Technical to provide the kind of artisan training they did in the past before being hollowed out by state-sponsored looters.

It had allocated another R1.5bn to turn the country's technical and vocational education and training colleges, most of which he says are just glorified schools, into institutions that offer "occupationally directed" programmes.

"All of these major plans have been badly hampered by the fact that we had to redirect our resources to meet the demands of Fees Must Fall," he says.

The NSF had no say in the matter.

"A decision was taken that there should be no fee increase. That zero-increase policy was not funded through the fiscus and so the department had to look around to see what it could tap into."

The NSF was told it would be a "one-off", but then came the "free fees" announcement.

"We didn't know there would be another policy coming which would be almost a permanent feature of the higher education system."

A no-increase, let alone free, fee policy is "absolutely not sustainable", he says. "Absolutely not. It is a totally unsustainable policy."

He says the skills the NSF is mandated to target are mostly not taught at university but due to the department's intervention, its money is being spent on university students regardless of what they're studying.

This will make the National Development Plan's goal of 30,000 artisans a year by 2030 impossible to meet, he says. Only 21,000 artisans a year are being produced at the moment.

Although other bodies such as the Sector Education and Training Authorities are supposed to deliver on this as well, "you could say the NSF is a critical player in this space".

Businesses in the metals and engineering sector that are desperate for skilled artisans and paid skills levies of R3bn to the NSF last year have communicated their concern that NSF money is being channelled into keeping fees down for social sciences and humanities students at university.

"We're going through a consultation process with them, and these are the concerns that have been raised and continue to be raised," says Macikama.

"They have expressed their anger, but they realise that there is currently a funding reality in the country as far as universities are concerned."

He says the higher education and training department shouldn't have treated the NSF's budget as its own, but had little choice.

"It should not have. But when there is a policy directive like this that is approved at the highest level, and is inclusive of the National Treasury, how can an institution act against that reality?"

The argument he met from the department was that the NSF's mandate was to provide skills required by the country, and skills provided by universities are required by the country.

Engineering and medical, perhaps, but social sciences and humanities?

"Maybe not on the scale that is currently the case," he says. There are more students with these qualifications than the market is able to process, he says.

Meanwhile, businesses are having to import the skills they require.

What Macikama finds perhaps more alarming is that South African institutions no longer have the capacity to offer training in badly needed specialist skills.

"Hence we are sending more and more students to other countries to gain the kind of skills that industry requires."

He says the shortage of artisans is hampering the rollout of the government's infrastructure development programme.

Thanks to private-sector support, NSF plans to have 26 "centres of specialisation" up and running at technical and vocational training colleges from January next year are still on track, he says.

The private sector is "showing willingness in a very big way to ensure that they succeed and give us on a consistent basis the skills needed".

Macikama says the policy environment is being "tightened up" to meet the need for assurances that the money the private sector contributes will not be hijacked by the department to meet government no-fee-increase commitments.

"We can't give any guarantees but we can contribute to tightening the policy environment so that the lines are clearly defined."

The need for certainty about how the skills levy will be utilised is something it emphasised, he said. At all the meetings this issue "has been at the centre".

He says the centres of specialisation are intended to play the role of the old discarded apprenticeship system.

"This is about industry being at the forefront so that the ones we indenture in these programmes at the centres of specialisation don't just go there as people who want to enter an institution, but go there because industry has sent them there and wants them there to acquire specific skills."

Macikama, 45, who has been CEO since 2011, says he doesn't know why the apprenticeship system was done away with, but fortunately "quite a number of industries never really stopped it".

"Manufacturing in the country could have collapsed altogether if they had not kept it going, even if on a smaller scale."

The original of this report by Chris Barron appeared on page 8 of Sunday Times Business Times of 7 October 2018

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