The recent ‘#FeesMustFall’ campaign got me thinking yet again about the role of University education, entrepreneurial career paths, the importance of artisanal skills and trades, and practical preparation for the world of work. I have a post-graduate degree myself and taught at tertiary level for nearly 23 years before leaving to grow my guesthouse business. So, apart from the obvious training and content-specific knowledge needed for professional degrees such as medicine, engineering, law, accounting, teaching, etc., I am only too aware of the huge advantages that a University education brings to bear in terms of critical thinking and the discipline and rigor of the academic pursuit. One cannot measure this training – it is invaluable.
However, again, having taught in a University context for so many years, I am also of the opinion that just as there are many capable and prepared students who should be going to University but cannot afford to (and this is where the FeesMustFall campaign applies), there are also students at University who are so ill-prepared for the demands of a University degree because of a completely inadequate foundation in the school education system, that they are simply not able to ‘catch up’ over the relatively short time of an undergraduate degree and are set up for failure. And, just as bad, there are many who get their degrees but find that they are ill-equipped for the world of work and are often unemployable. Many of these students end up working in positions which do not require graduate training. In other instances there is an oversupply of graduates and the employment market cannot absorb them all. Again graduates leaving University find they cannot get jobs.
As somebody who is now an entrepreneur and small business owner and who works with other entrepreneurs, the recent events have highlighted for me yet again:
- the false thinking behind the merging of Technikons with Universities back in the early 2000s
- the problem of the refrain from Government that University education is a right for all
- the prioritizing of a university education over technical training.
Given Apartheid’s ideological evil of denying black people the opportunities to be educated beyond the level of manual labourers, the stigma associated with the trade professions in South Africa is completely understandable. However I think there is a lot that Government could do to shift values and negative connotations attached to anything to do with technical skills and practical training. For a start these artisanal skills should be reframed as being the foundation towards becoming a business owner and entrepreneur and should be taught along with everyday basic business life-skills like computer literacy, maths literacy, email conventions, business planning, budgeting, cash flow management, legislation requirements, tax submission procedures, etc. (These are all skills needed in one’s personal life as well.)
As an entrepreneur myself, I look at the various people that I work with and I see the huge advantages of independent small business ownership combined with training in a sought-after skill.
- None of the small business owners that Liz at Lancaster uses for service and maintenance issues has a University degree
- some are white, some are Indian, most are black (if we are going to base the job opportunity debate in the context of race)
- all are chosen as preferred suppliers because they are competent and reliable
- most, admittedly, are men so I need to write another post on career opportunities for women outside of degreed professions
- all are successfully earning livings and building businesses based on practical skills and experience
- some are training others in apprenticeships
- some are putting family through private schools
- some have afforded their own children a University education
- some employ a team of people.
All share an ethos of pride in their work – from E&C Curtains, to Master Plumbing, to a carpenter trained by a German master carpenter who is in turn training his son, to Black Fix who services and fixes all our white goods, to the carpet cleaning business, the upholsterers, the uniform supplier, the tree feller, the electrical contractor, the pool maintenance business, the paving business, the thatchers, the maker and supplier of bathroom amenities, the list goes on and on.
And irony of ironies, for many years as a small business owner I used the most amazing handyman who was a trained electrician and plumber. Over a decade ago he emigrated to Australia where he and his family are doing very well as his trade skills are so sought after in Australia. Not that we want our youth to enter technical training for this reason. But it does rather add weight to the argument that trade careers are often more portable than careers requiring University degrees. So my plea to Government would be to
- work towards removing the stigma around not having a University education
- re-open technical colleges
- apply the free education policy to students attending these Technikons
- ensure high standards of training emphasizing both quality of workmanship and a pride in one’s profession – ‘Whatever you are, be a good one’
- focus on the job creation opportunities created by the small business sector
- remove red tape facing small business owners
- promote the financial advantages of entrepreneurship.
And of course start investing in education from early childhood … but that is another area of discussion. For now: focus on developing the much needed skills required in the market place and the excellent career opportunities which do not require a University degree.