The quality of university education is of concern around the world. Even the most prestigious universities in the US, UK, Europe and Australia are worried about maintaining their standards, not to mention their numbers. As the costs of tertiary education soar, many people are looking for more affordable alternatives, which include online universities and training colleges, such as TAFE (Training and Further Education) schools in Australia and FET (Further Education and Training) schools in South Africa.
The situation in South Africa
In places like South Africa, where education is a contentious issue – owing to the majority of the population being deprived of decent education during the apartheid years and the increasing levels of poverty which makes access to tertiary education particularly problematic – promoting alternatives to university education is essential.
The South African government has recognised the importance of the matter, as President Jacob Zuma recently stated that people in the country needed to change their perception of FET colleges as vastly inferior to universities. By encouraging students to choose FET schools, the government will not only be promoting education but will also help develop the technical skills that are so desperately needed.
Of course this will also need a significant capital investment to ensure that all the colleges in the country have the facilities and capabilities to provide the training and skills students need, but Zuma has pledged R2.5 billion ($313 000) over the next three years for this purpose.
The situation in the rest of the world
South Africa has a long way to go before it reaches the standards of international VET (Vocational Education and Training) institutions. In Australia, for example, VET and TAFE providers offer nationally accredited courses, many of which serve as pathways to university education. If students opt to forego university, the qualifications are still respected enough to ensure promising careers in their chosen fields.
Vocational schools are big in Finland and the standard of education is exceptionally high. Other countries that take full advantage of vocational education systems include Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Hong Kong, Japan, New Zealand, Mexico and Sweden (Wikipedia).
In the US, the levels of vocational training depend upon the state. Some institutions are privately owned, while others take the form of community colleges and still others are run by the military and government (Wikipedia again). Accreditation is either national or regional and the standards can be vastly different. This makes transferring credits tricky and not all regional colleges will accept credits from nationally accredited institutions. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, one of the reasons for this is that many regional schools consider national standards inferior to their own.
While university degrees are still the acme of education, VET qualifications are not to be dismissed out of hand. Many countries work hard to ensure that their VET standards rival those of their universities and in those countries where the standards fall short, it appears that every effort is being made to close the gap.
Sandy Cosser writes on behalf of Now Learning, which promotes TAFE courses and various online learning opportunities in Australia.