Writer: Karen MacGregor, University World News
In a policy about-face, the South African government is considering re-creating teacher training colleges that it closed a decade ago. Teacher programmes at colleges were either shut down or incorporated into universities. A teacher college campaign is being driven by South African President-in-waiting Jacob Zuma, backed by political parties and teacher unions – but not necessarily by universities – in the face of drastic teacher shortages in schools as teachers immigrate, die of AIDS or leave the profession.
Last week Minister of Education Naledi Pandor told parliament that her department was investigating options to re-establish some colleges in view of the teacher shortage. She said the education department had allocated R180 million (US$23 million) in 2008 for service-linked bursaries for 5,000 student teachers in universities, aiming to train more primary school teachers, more teachers to work in rural schools, and more maths and language teachers – the areas of critical shortage.
But since South Africa was still short of teachers in these key areas, the department was considering establishing “dedicated units, colleges, or institutions in each province to strengthen this triple need and to support provincial and local government-integrated development plans”. However, she has stressed that not all colleges will reopen as South Africa needs to train more teachers at university-level to improve quality.
Her announcement was welcomed by teacher unions. But John Lewis, media officer for the powerful South African Democratic Teachers Union (Sadtu), said government also needed to put more effort into making teacher training arrangements in universities work better.
“We don’t see this as colleges versus universities. We think that a lot of the intellectual drive behind teacher training will continue to come from universities. But colleges have a role to play in teacher training outreach,” he told University World News.
Sadtu’s pro-college argument has three main thrusts. First, Lewis said, when teacher training was transferred to universities “they didn’t really rise to the occasion. There has been a massive drop in the number of teachers being trained.” Universities are graduating around 6,000 to 10,000 teachers a year, but the profession is shedding 18,000 teachers a year. South Africa loses some 4,000 teachers a year to immigration.
Secondly, universities have focused on the high end of teaching, on upgrading teachers at the postgraduate level rather than training new teachers, Lewis explained. “Third, an advantage of colleges was that many were located in rural areas so they were much more accessible to people in areas that most need teachers. The idea to take teacher training to where it is most needed.”
Professor Mary Metcalfe, dean of humanities at the University of the Witwatersrand and chair of a forum for South African education deans, has come out against the re-opening of colleges because of changed conditions. She argued that expanding teacher training capacity and geographic reach should be built on the base of what has been achieved during eight years of teacher training being undertaken at universities. “What we need is for universities to create new models by establishing relationships with institutes,” she told reporters.
The pro-college movement began last December, when the ruling African National Congress voted for their resurrection at its annual conference in the northern town of Polokwane. Zuma made a political comeback at Polokwane to be elected leader of the ANC, after being fired as Deputy President of South Africa a few years earlier following allegations of corruption in South Africa’s multi-billion dollar arms deal. Although Zuma still faces corruption charges, as leader of the ANC he is in line to take over as President after national elections next year, the end of Mbeki’s second and constitutionally last term.
Zuma is an enthusiastic advocate of resurrecting teacher colleges, and recently he slammed former Minister of Education Kader Asmal for closing them down – and in the process doing “worse then what the apartheid regime did to our education system”.
It was an extraordinary statement of dubious accuracy, which Asmal – a former law professor at the University of Dublin, who retired from politics this year – responded to thus: “I regret that my comrade president has personalised this issue because the decision was taken by cabinet. I implemented it and I did not close down the colleges, but transferred them to institutions of higher education.” Asmal also pointed out that the cabinet decision to close colleges was taken when his predecessor, Professor Sibusiso Bengu, was education minister.
Teacher colleges were largely created under apartheid to train primary school teachers, and were administered by provinces in a system that Naledi Pandor described as dysfunctional. When it was decided during the 1990s to close them, she added, colleges were training too many teachers in a fragmented and un-coordinated system.
Further, the quality of college training was uneven, some colleges were too expensive for provinces to run (partly because they had too few students), and most African students “were disadvantaged by being locked into colleges in former homelands.” ‘Homelands’ were areas created under apartheid for black people, run by black leaders.
Between 1994 and 1998 the number of colleges was cut from 150 to 50. In 2001 it was announced that remaining colleges would fall under university education faculties. Pandor said the closure of teacher colleges had followed wide consultation and most stakeholders supported the move and “the associated policy decision to raise the professional status of the teaching profession by locating teacher education and training at universities.
“The argument that primary school teachers do not need a university education is part of the call to reopen teacher colleges and it is a policy proposal that is under review,” she said.
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