Staff cuts hamper SAQA's ability to provide skills assurance
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Johannesburg - There are growing concerns over the ability of the South African Qualifications Authority (SAQA) fulfilling its role as the foremost statutory body registering qualifications, fighting qualification fraud and corruption through verification of national qualifications, and the evaluation of foreign qualifications in government departments and national entities.
Anxious employees claim that workers have been let down by Blade Nzimande, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, by not supporting SAQA financially, resulting in the retrenchment of 88 employees – almost half its staff complement – earlier this month.
Nzimande is responsible for ensuring that SAQA is adequately funded, according to the National Qualifications Framework (NQF) Act which states that “the minister must provide funds from money appropriated by Parliament for SAQA to function according to its mandate”.
The workers claim, however, that the minister had failed to fulfil his duty over many years, forcing SAQA to raise increasing amounts of money through providing services to the public. The ratio of government funding to SAQA contribution to its budget has always been between 60% and 40%. Currently, the state allocation is only 44% which, according to union members, is unacceptable.
Vesu, the body representing non-unionised workers at SAQA, said it first received the notice of retrenchment from SAQA on November 2 last year. This was the first of the two retrenchment notices, with the second one termed, “the redesign of the organisation”, sent to employees on April 11 this year.
SAQA will have to contend with further cuts of about R15m and R20m over the next three years, meaning that the State allocated funds would amount to R37 million by the end of the three-year budget cycle.
“This meant that SAQA would not be able to deliver on its mandated functions, and further would risk further retrenchments,” said Vesu.
Acting chief executive officer Julie Reddy said it was difficult to predict the impact of the retrenchments on the organisation, as a consultant would be monitoring the implementation of the new structure over the next few months and help management to identify gaps in the structure.
She said the board had agreed to review the implementation at its meeting in July and approve any additional positions on the new structure if required. The board will continue to monitor progress with implementation over the next year and will only approve the final structure for SAQA in July 2022.
Asked whether SAQA is adequately funded, Reddy said no, it was not.
“As a Section 3A public entity, SAQA is not allowed to submit an unbalanced budget, and neither is it allowed to borrow funds. The only two sources of revenue are through paid services and government funding. SAQA is looking at alternate ways of raising funds that are within its mandate,” she said.
Reddy said SAQA was monitoring the situation in terms of delivering on its mandate and may in the short term, engage some of the retrenched staff on short term contracts if needed.
“Once SAQA is on a better financial footing, and demand for services increases, we will revisit the structure.”
Reddy added that SAQA was initially going to retrench 74 staff members in November 2020 but on the eve of the retrenchment letters being issued, the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET) provided SAQA with R5m towards its salary bill, on condition that it restructures and delays retrenchments.
“Staff retrenchments were therefore put on hold for the last financial year. This gave management an opportunity to re-structure and establish a more meaningful way to retrench. Unfortunately, the delay in retrenchments led to 88 staff being retrenched instead of the original 74 that would have been retrenched if retrenchments had taken place in November 2020,” she said.
Reddy said it was difficult to predict whether SAQA can deliver on its mandate with the reduced staff number or not.
“We will know better once we have conducted the monitoring and evaluation stage of the process. We will also know better when we return to ’normal’ post the lockdown. Another factor to consider is the implementation of the NQF Amendment Act, 2019, which the president has not yet proclaimed.”
As part of a turnaround strategy, Reddy said the board had approved an alternate funding strategy, which will be implemented during the current financial year.
“This may not solve SAQA's financial woes in the short term but will certainly help to move the organisation towards financial sustainability in the medium term.”
Qualification’s assurance expert Shirley Lloyd said the changes to its structure would significantly affect the SAQA mandate and one must be mindful of the fact that the SAQA system, designed for the further development and implementation of the National Qualifications Framework (NQF), has been part of the education and training landscape in South African since 1995/96.
“To imagine that an Artificial Intelligence system can replace people in the SAQA space and in the NQF space, shows a lack of understanding of what SAQA does and what the NQF is all about, and what the impact will be on an entire network of users of the NQF,” she said.
She said SAQA had the responsibility to advance the objectives of the NQF, and to oversee the further development and implementation of the NQF, and to co-ordinate the sub-frameworks. All the other functions listed in the NQF Act, reside within overarching responsibilities.
One of the most significant work streams has been to oversee the changeover from the SAQA Act to the NQF Act, and to ensure the allocation of qualifications to the sub-frameworks of the three Qualification Councils. SAQA has also played the role of final quality assurer of all qualifications and part-qualifications submitted to it for registration on the NQF.
“The reliance on the staff of SAQA to produce credible information has been assumed to always be in place. And by reducing the staff numbers so drastically and so quickly, before any new systems are in place, and before wide consultation has taken place with all stakeholders and role players, is unwise,” Reddy said.