By Gugulethu Mgabhi and Tengetile Hlophe

Education remains a pillar of socioeconomic development in Eswatini. This is why the work that the Ministry of Education and Training (MoET) is doing to provide accessible, affordable, and relevant education is commended.

In a bid to enhance the employability of young people and create employment opportunities in the country, the relevancy of the qualifications and skills produced by the education system, particularly higher education, has never been so critical. The reason is that, youth unemployment, which stood at 51.6% in 2014, the last year for which reliable data is available, has skyrocketed amidst limited opportunities for young people in the economy.

To illustrate, an ESEPARC study assessing the relevancy of the education system – focusing on technical vocational education training (TVET) – found that less than 20% of the TVET graduates produced by the TVET training system in eSwatini will have the acceptable skill levels demanded by industry. This is despite the fact that TVET has emerged as a credible route for the production of the necessary skills and knowledge that will feed directly into industry.

There are over 16,000 young people that graduate from high school each year. Less than 40% or 6000 of these high school graduates are able to secure a space in the country’s tertiary institutions. A large number of the remaining graduates (60%) use TVET training institutions like SCOT, Gwamile VOCTIM, MITC, among others. Put differently, this suggests that graduates are willing to enrol in any of the available training institutions to develop their skills regardless of the relevancy and quality of education and certification processes offered by the training institutions. The study recommends that the MoET should consider improving the efficiency and effectiveness of the TVET system by establishing mechanisms for monitoring and assessing TVET delivery and quality assurance.

Specifically, to provide relevant and quality education beyond the TVET sector, many countries are now developing and adopting National Qualifications Frameworks (NQFs) as a fundamental component of their qualifications system.

Indeed, Eswatini is following through the footsteps of other countries in the world to develop and adopt an NQF. In December 2016, Eswatini joined about 147 countries worldwide that are now implementing NQFs to strengthen the validity and recognition of the qualifications produced by their education systems. And so, in Eswatini, the education system now operates under an NQF known as the Swaziland Qualifications Framework (SQF).

So what is an NQF? In addition, what are the expected benefits of the SQF in delivering a quality and relevant education system in Eswatini?

The MoET defines the NQF as an instrument that facilitates the development and recognition of knowledge, skills, and competencies along a yardstick of predetermined skill levels. It describes a skill’s ladder contained in an education system differentiating between entry, middle, and high-level qualifications.

In other words, the NQF identifies and aligns specific skill sets and competencies with a progression of specific levels of qualifications. In doing so, qualifications issued by one country can easily be compared against a globally recognised system of qualifications.

So why does the NQF matter? It matters because it benefits economic agents who make use of the skills produced by a country’s education system. Employers benefit because they can easily identify the skills level they require for different job openings regardless of where they source their labour. Likewise, students/trainees benefit because they are able to align themselves to acquire knowledge, skill, and competency levels required by the potential employers in their prospective careers.

Put differently, an NQF establishes a uniform and transparent system from which skills and competencies possessed by individuals can be benchmarked and as such fosters the creation of a conjoint labour force enabling the mobility of human resource between countries and between local academic institutions and local employers.

Recall that in 2017, the Swaziland Higher Education Council (SHEQ) temporarily shut down some of the tertiary institutions in the country, including the Eswatini Christian University. These institutions had to be shut down because they were in breach of operational requirements provided in the SQF. Among the breached requirements were shortages of instructors and/or lack of sufficiently qualified instructors, insufficient provision of key learning facilities such as laboratories, and inadequate education curricula and modules.

As it happens, an NQF is critical in the development of a country because it benchmarks the expected performance of its human capital in the production of goods and services at each skill level.

NQFs are the starting point in ensuring that the labour supplied by the education system is competent and relevant to the needs of industry and the direction of the economy as a whole. Hence, all institutions of higher learning must ensure that they conform to the stipulations of the SQF so that they supply the required qualifications that will not only serve Eswatini’s economy, but also the SADC community, Africa, and the rest of the world.

Keep in mind that the implementation of the SQF does not come without hurdles. The MoET and the country at large needs to prepare itself for the education sector reforms, which have been necessitated by the SQF.

Instigating changes on the education system can be a slow and excruciating process; however, with the low social and economic development that Eswatini is experiencing, investment in human capital is vital.

Most of all, the SQF requires an overhaul of the education system and this comes with significant financial implications. It requires the re-training of lecturers and educators, revision of academic curriculum, purchasing of new equipment and machinery, all of which cost serious money. Moreover, it also necessitates extensive stakeholder consultations and participation to establish the required qualifications system with the appropriate assessment and certification frameworks.

But if the system addresses the needs of the local labour market, making sure that it capitalises on the participation of employers for assessments and practice, then perhaps it can bring hope to Swati students in terms of aligning skills demanded by employers versus those they acquire through the education system. It can guarantee that the labour market easily absorbs the products of Eswatini’s education system.

However, if rolling out the SQF overlooks some of the elements of the education system that need transformation and alignment to the needs of the local and global economy, then the SQF might simply become another unnecessary bottleneck within the education system of the country.

For instance: insufficient financial resources allocated to the system will result in failure of the implementation process.  Similarly, an obscure system copied and pasted from the rest of the world that does not address the needs of our local economy will most likely result in irrelevant qualifications and more unemployed graduates. Furthermore, a top-down approach will definitely alienate a majority of the stakeholders and create yet another education stumbling block. And lastly, if the SQF induces an increase in local school fees, then it could contribute to the unaffordability of education in the long-run.

It is clear that Eswatini stands to benefit from the newly adopted SQF. One of the major benefits it brings is a transformed education system that produces qualifications recognised locally, regionally, and internationally by employers and higher education institutions. However, it can also easily turn into an education disaster if some of the processes and resources required for its implementation are ignored or overlooked.

For education reforms to work therefore, the government must increase investment into education. Funds will be required for the implementation phase to cater for the retraining of teachers and lecturers; buy equipment; review of curriculum from junior secondary to tertiary since the primary education curriculum was reviewed through the assistance of the European Union; stakeholder consultations and involvement in the design of the new curriculum; review of the assessment and certification frameworks, and learning materials.

This is a very important exercise, which the whole nation is looking up to for its operationalisation. Hence, development partners are encouraged to join hands with government in financially supporting this great work aimed at transforming the education system in Eswatini. Most importantly, increase budget allocation towards retraining teachers and procurement of equipment. The Government, the MoET, and all the affected stakeholders need to make sure that the SQF does not become yet another policy to be shelved and forgotten about.