As the future of South Africa is linked to investments in the education and training of the country’s youth, the president addressed delegates at the 2013 Commonwealth Conference on Education and Training of Youth Workers where fundamental discourse on furthering the youth work profession and higher education’s role in this regard took place.
Unisa hosted the conference in partnership with the South African government, the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA) and the Commonwealth Africa Regional Centre. This partnership, said Unisa Principal and Vice-Chancellor, Prof Mandla Makhanya, represents another “striking” example of the multi-stakeholder collaboration that has been taking place at Unisa, since the beginning of last week. He was referring to Unisa hosting, amongst others, its Research and Innovation Week, a Unisa BRICS symposium on Energy Materials and Innovation as well the Thabo Mbeki@70 Colloquium, which brought together a host of renowned African intellectuals.
Unisa’s educational role as partner
The VC said given the theme of the Commonwealth Conference, Towards the professionalisation of youth work, Unisa had to ensure the fundamental role of higher education – to cultivate highly educated people, contribute to forging a critical and democratic citizenship, actively engaging with the pressing development challenges of society, contributing to the intellectual and cultural development of the public as critical citizens, and conducting different kinds of rigorous scholarship – was included in the discourse taking place.
He added that for all partners it was about the collective aim to facilitate the establishment of youth work as a profession, which also falls in line with the university’s goals to be an African scientific hub of research and innovation that is globally relevant.
“The conference is about providing a platform for the discussion of education and training in the youth work sector, and to developing an ‘as is’ and a ‘to be’ strategy map for the way forward to our end goal. I believe that we are all very clear on that. Clearly, by being ready to host this conference, Unisa has already evidenced its commitment to the establishment of youth work as a profession, and so my message is aimed at reminding us of the rationale behind the establishment of youth work as a profession – and that of course, is the growth, nurturing and development of our youth into the kind of citizen that will be an asset to our respective societies and whose values promote the development of all and not just the privileged few,” he said.
The three-day conference is based on the foundation that youth development practice is a profession like any other and therefore must be streamlined in order to meet the standards required for any profession. The delegates from the 54 Commonwealth member states include youth workers, policy makers and government officials as well as researchers and academics in youth development studies, all deliberating on issues relating to their work with the aim of charting a way forward for ensuring recognition of youth work as a professional practice.
Topics include plenary and parallel workshop sessions covering variety of relevant themes such as education and training of youth workers, recognition of prior learning and continuous professional development, standardisation of youth work curriculum in the Commonwealth, building and sustaining a strong front through formation of professional youth work associations, and promoting youth work through national youth policies and programmes.
The VC said the conference should encourage the youth to become excited about education – their own and that of their peers. Education, he said, brings hope into situations of hopelessness. “We know statistically, that the longer a young person remains unemployed and uneducated the less likely he or she is to be educated or employed. This conference is about breaking that cycle.”
Commitment by the South African government
President Zuma said the South African government had re-committed themselves to promote youth development opportunities for the future leaders of South Africa. “We undertook to do this by amongst others, enhancing communication with the youth, collecting and sharing good practices, and ensuring that the voice of the youth is represented in Commonwealth actions at national and international levels.”
In South Africa, more than 40% of those who are economically active and under the age of 30 are unemployed. And while this is worrying, there is also a positive angle, said Zuma. A report by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) highlights that countries that have higher numbers of youth in their population have better growth prospects than those with aging populations.
“This makes us very optimistic regarding growth prospects since South Africa’s Census 2011 revealed that our country is essentially a nation of young people. Just over a third of the population is under the age of 15. This makes us a nation with a future, and we must utilise all available resources to build that future … Therefore focusing on improving the quality of education is well-placed as we are investing in our children and the youth to ensure sustainable development.”
He said one of the areas related to higher education in which South Africa is involved is the Commonwealth Scholarship and Fellowship Plan, an international programme under which member governments offer scholarships and fellowships to citizens of other Commonwealth countries. “The plan was established at the first Commonwealth Education Conference in 1959 and is reviewed by education ministers at their triennial meetings. Our Department of Higher Education is the designated national agency with respect to South Africa. In this regard, South Africa offers scholarships for master’s and doctoral study through individual universities. We are also fully supportive of the inclusion of education in the new Strategic Plan of the Commonwealth Secretariat. We therefore support the ongoing training of young people including the mainstreaming of youth work as a discipline or a career.”
The fundamental role of higher education
Prof Howard Sercombe from the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, Scotland, who spoke on The need for international recognition of youth work as a profession said throughout the world, youth work is recognisable by key insights, “profound insights, that shapes practice and contributes to solidarity but which are unfortunately in this modern world, not common sense”.
The first insight those in the youth work profession work towards is the view that young people are a problem. Youth workers refuse to see young people this way – “as a kind of national sickness”.
Another insight, said Sercombe, is that young people’s lives are constructed by their free will and their social context. “Young people live and adapt to the world given to them by their elders and government – they are shaped and become the people they need to be in their social context, and if we are to change the lives of young people we have to change the social context.
“The transformation that we seek – which all professions are engaged in – is the third insight. It is for young people to find agency … Agency is the moments, moods and times in the teenage years when young people take their lives into their own hands and it becomes the life they own and the life they want … Too often however, this process is inhibited by poverty and restriction and various forces that limit their possibilities.”
Sercombe said the youth work profession internationally needed to be articulated, organised and supported. Two key stakeholders to offer support should be higher education institutions and governments.
On higher education: “Universities have always been critical in the development and support of professions and this new profession needs your support. It’s easy for universities to become locked in the process of self-promotion, so the only things that become important are money and status. And so many times, universities have lost their sense of public service and their obligations to their communities. Universities, your role is to develop your nations and the support of those kinds of bodies of practitioners who in the short term may not bring you money and status is important.”
Commonwealth Secretariat Deputy Secretary-General, Masekgoa Masire-Mwamba, said the Commonwealth has, for a long time, championed that youth work studies have a rightful place in academia, and after 40 years of work, they are seeing results in the higher-education sector of member states.
She thanked Unisa for being part of this “solutions-focused” conference and said higher education, including Unisa, had played a great role in the achievements in the body of knowledge that exists on youth development and the youth work profession in South Africa. “Unisa has also graduated the largest number of students in youth development training over the years and continues to sponsor production of the Commonwealth Youth and Development journal. This profession is coming of age and as it comes of age, there is a thirst for knowledge, research and information on how best we can position ourselves and move forward.”
The South African landscape of the youth-work profession
Director: Youth Development, Presidency, Dr Bernice Hlagala, presented on National recognition of youth work as a profession: Lessons from South Africa. Based on research conducted, she spoke about the South African landscape of the youth-work profession and the higher-education qualifications offered at different universities aimed at improving and furthering the profession. And while much has been done in this regard, Hlagala reiterated that more needs to be done. “The significance of education and training cannot be ignored.”
She said within the South African government, the portfolio of youth work resides within the presidency, with youth development mainstreamed in all spheres of government and across various sectors, and the National Youth Development Agency is the custodian of youth development.
Hlagala explained that the process of professionalising youth work in South Africa started in the late 1980s. The Youth Practitioners Advocacy Group, established in 1994 and which in 2008 became the South African Youth Workers Association (SAYWA), she said, produced a document called the Hunter Rest Declaration and first draft youth-work policy which was presented to the inter-ministerial committee on youth at risk. “Both the declaration and the policy provided for clear youth-work objectives, career paths, education frameworks, outcomes for youth work and a professional code of ethics … The South African Youth Workers Association consulted and collaborated with the Professional Development of Youth Work Consortium in facilitating the professionalisation process. Youth work was then included in the National Youth Policy in 2008.”
She said all sectors of society and all professions had the platform to conduct youth work and development, and this should be an area of specialisation. She also spoke on the importance of recruiting youth workers to become involved in policy-making. Hlagala added that South Africa seemed to be on track in adopting a two-pronged approach on recognition of youth work as a profession.
*Written by Rivonia Naidu-Hoffmeester