I was the military attaché in Switzerland when President Nelson Mandela visited the country, in 1997, if my memory serves me right. Ambassador Ruth Mompati arranged for the entire embassy staff to meet him. We were standing in a circle, and when he came to me I came to attention, saluted him and said: “God morning Mr President, may I introduce myself. I am colonel Nel.” He smiled, shook my hand and answered me in Afrikaans.
Even though I was in uniform in my previous life, I always believed that the solution to South Africa’s problems is education, not violence and war. It was evident from a number of speeches by President Mandela that he, too, felt that the route to job creation and prosperity for all South Africans would be through quality education and training.
That is why I established Mentornet. The company was originally established as Manpower Mentoring Academy on 6 March 1991. In 1999 we accredit through SAQA (the old ‘blue book” process, which some of you might remember) to offer three higher education certificates. A year later the Council on Higher Education (CHE) was established. They simply swept the accreditation of all private learning institutions off the table and, to ensure that such providers would not be able to continue offering learning they also convinced the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), then still the Department of Education, to cancel the registration of all private providers.
As if this was not bad enough, the DHET “blacklisted” all the private providers accredited by SAQA as not being registered and included a list of all our names in their web site. I still can’t believe that nobody took legal action against them for doing this. To this day the CHE and their quality assurance body, the Higher Education Quality Committee (HEQC) uses this “having been deregistered by DHET” as an excuse when they do not wish to accredit private providers and cannot find a valid reason for their refusal. Mentornet subsequently did accredit with SETAs and the Quality Council for Trades and Occupations (QCTO) and registered with the DHET again.
President Mandela challenged public universities to restructure themselves to cater for the previously disadvantaged, especially the unemployed. Instead universities still focus on issuing political leaders with so-called honorary degrees while the pass rate for those who need learning is absolutely dismal. Surely this is something that the CHE should pay attention to rather than to target small private learning institutions, or, even worse, doing their utmost to protect poor performing public universities against private higher education institutions who perform much better and offer much better quality learning.
Government departments and parastatals approached Mentornet to offer a bachelor’s degree in occupational and vocational learning because they were concerned about the poor quality learning taking place in the workplace and offered by TVET Colleges. Such a degree should focus on the theory and philosophy of occupational and vocational learning rather than practical learning, which legacy and even the new QCTO qualifications focus on. Mentornet developed the qualification, but the CHE do not seem to understand the desperate need for such a qualification if workplace learning is to add value to the industry. Perhaps they do not understand the difference between occupational learning, i.e. workplace learning, which focuses on acquiring skills and the theory and philosophy of occupational learning, which would be academic learning.
It is often claimed that private learning institutions are just opportunists trying to make lots of money while offering poor quality learning. I cannot speak for other private learning institutions because I do not know what their fees or profit margins are. I can, however, say the following about Mentornet:
- Mentornet’s course fees for a national qualifications is less than a third of what government currently sponsor students with, and universities add an amount to such sponsorships.
- Mentornet students enjoy a three-course meal every day when the attend contact learning or study schools at no additional cost to them or their employers.
- Mentornet students do not need to purchase prescribed books and they receive professional developed and published books for most of the modules that they attend. All books for the bachelor’s degree will be published books that student will not pay for in addition to their study fees.
- Mentornet is registered for skills levies and pay the required amount without claiming anything back, ever. In addition we spend and amount of approximately 18% of our annual salaries on the development of our staff members and we allow two unemployed students on every course for free. Such unemployed students are employed by us if they perform well enough on their courses.
In closing, I don’t think President Mandela would have been happy with the way in which the CHE forsakes its responsibility to promote the quality of learning in higher education or performitivity of most public universities.