Connecting SA’s TVET colleges

By the start of 2022 more than half of the 231 TVET college campuses were connected to the SANReN network as part of the TVET Colleges Connection Programme (TCCP) with plans to connect the remaining 45 by the end of the year.
Connecting SA’s TVET colleges

High speed Internet connectivity is a critical tool for teaching and learning, this was the case pre-2020 - the year of COVID-19 lockdowns which accelerated the rate of remote teaching and learning - and has become even more pronounced today. This is why, back in 2015, TENET began to investigate options to connect the 50 public technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVET colleges) in South Africa.

“These colleges are of the foremost importance in South Africa’s future development and they should accordingly be connected to the SANReN network and derive the benefit of it, as well as the scope for collaboration that is enabled by such connectivity, both with other TVETs and with universities,” said TENET CEO, Duncan Greaves.

The South African Broadband Education Networks (SABEN) was formed, as a subsidiary of TENET, and with funding secured by the National Skills Foundation, part of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), undertook the project to connect the TVET colleges to the SANReN network.

By the start of 2022 more than half of the 231 TVET college campuses were connected as part of the TVET Colleges Connection Programme (TCCP) with plans to connect the remaining 45 by the end of the year.

Getting the project off the ground

The SABEN team faced major challenges in implementation of the project, not least of which was the COVID-19 global pandemic which hit in their second year of operations.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns caused no end of delays,” says Lizanne Penderis, TCCP Project Manager, “delays in getting equipment into South Africa, institutions closed and we could not get access to the sites and backlogs on municipal approvals even after the lockdowns were lifted.”

COVID-19 is by far not the only challenge the project faces, says Garth Scholtz, SABEN General Manager. “Another big issue is loadshedding and disruption to the power supply. Due the nature of the infrastructure, loadshedding in one area can sometimes mean a college over a 100 kilometers away will go offline for hours.”

While many of the challenges, such as localised incidents of corruption, vandalism and protests are part of larger structural problems far beyond SABEN’s scope, where the SABEN team can identify a solution, they work proactively to implement it.

Building capacity for IT skills in TVET sector

“IT skills and capacity are in short supply in the TVET sector,” says Scholtz. “There are just over 100 IT technicians serving the 325 TVET campuses nationally. To put it in perspective, there are fewer IT technicians serving the whole TVET community than there are at the University of Cape Town.”

To try and remedy this SABEN is working with the global non-profit the Internet Society to provide free training to members of the TVET community.

“As well as this we are planning to launch a podcast series to get subject experts on various technical matters relevant to the TVET community and make that widely available, and we are engaging with DHET for funding to go on a nationwide capacity building exercise,” says Scholtz.

Ending bandwidth poverty for TVET colleges

Despite these challenges SABEN has come a long way in a few short years connecting TVET campuses. Since the project started in 2019, 182 new connections were established and 37 existing connections upgraded. Because these campuses are being connected to the SANREN network they are jumping up to 200mbps (megabits per second).

“For some colleges this is a jump from 10mbps to 200mbps,” says Penderis. “It has been so gratifying to get the positive feedback that the college staff can now do things like run updates to software, things that are critical to operations but that they could not do before because of limited connectivity.”

“What is also great,” says Scholtz, “is that we are now seeing a greater demand for bandwidth from the TVET colleges already connected. This means it is really being used, and making a difference to the teaching and learning efforts.”

Another triumph of the project for Scholtz is the cost-savings the TCCP has brought colleges with regards connectivity. Before the project began several colleges decided to self fund their connectivity with costs running into the millions. SABEN reconnected those colleges and managed to slash the monthly costs by up to 75% for some colleges.

According to the most recent figures by DHET there were nearly 680 000 students enrolled in TVET colleges in 2019, a significant number, not far behind the nearly 1.1 million students in South Africa’s public universities.

“South Africa needs a workforce comfortable with digital technologies, able to produce creative solutions to various challenges. We cannot expect students to only acquire these skills when they enter the workforce post-education, this needs to be ingrained as part of the training,” says Scholtz. “The TCCP is a first step towards ensuring TVET students can acquire those skills and be more competitive in the workforce.”