Research Chair: Skills Development

I am currently the SARCHI Research Chair in Skills Development.

The Chair aims to combine knowledge and insights from one of the classic concerns of comparative and international education—the relationships between education and work and the role of education in skills development—with one of the key concerns of the sociology of education—the development, selection, and acquisition of knowledge and skills in curricula.

Skills development is a complex notion. It sometimes refers to workplace-based training programmes such as apprenticeships or shorter training programmes in the workplace, but sometimes refers to all education and training that is aimed at the workplace. Institutional political economists examine ‘skill formation regimes’, by which they mean the ways in which political and socioeconomic institutions such as collective bargaining; as well as industrial strategies and industrial relations; and labor market and social welfare policies shape the ways in which education and training systems as well as workplaces are able to produce skilled workers. Skill formation systems are shaped by, and shape, the societies and economies in which they exist.

The notion of ‘skill’ itself is contested: Educationalists do not agree about the role of theoretical knowledge or its relation to practical knowledge. They also do not agree in what form these two types of knowledge are acquired, and what the best ways are to include them in curriculum which prepares for work. From the perspective of sociology, what is crucial is the power relations in societies and how different forms of power constrain and/or enable access to certain knowledge and skills.

Improving the ways in which the education and training system produces skilled workers is a crucial challenge for South Africa and many other developing countries. In this also included are the ways in which workplaces support skills development as well as the ability of workers to use their skills for work which is meaningful to them and valuable to their communities.

I aim to improve insights into the ways in which skills development interacts with the economy, industrial policy, and working conditions, as well as into the possibilities and limitations of education in this complex policy arena.

The Chair is essentially a research and capacity-building programme in the field of skills development. Activities are centred around:

  • Research projects, led primarily by the Chair
  • Training and supervision of graduate students
  • Hosting postdoctoral fellows and research visitors
  • Engagement in projects, often with partners, as well as conferences, workshops, seminars, and public and policy engagement.

The  research encompasses South Africa, Africa, and cross-country international studies. Current and planned broad research focus areas under the Chair include:

  • Occupations, work, and educational preparation for work—skill formation systems in developing and developed countries. The project is a macro-level comparison of labour market structures and skill formation systems in six countries, three in Africa (Ghana, Ethiopia, and South Africa) and three rich countries (Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland).
  • Skills for Industry—this is a 6 country study examining programmes to develop skills for industry in manufacturing in six countries, two in Africa (Ethiopia and South Africa) and four in South and South East Asia (Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). The project is led by Prof Markus Maurer, Zurich Pedagogic University. I lead the South African component of the study. The project aims to explore the critical factors that help or hinder vocational skills development to contribute to inclusive industrial growth and transformation in low and middle-income countries.
  • Knowledge and work: With Professor Yael Shalem, I am working with PhD students who are examining the ways in which knowledge is developed in curricula and deployed in workplaces in mid-level occupations in South Africa. Research questions include the ways in which the changing division of labour in mid-level occupations (e.g. nursing, oral health) translate into curriculum differentiation? Do the official curricula empower employees of middle level occupations in their work?
  • Higher education and the public good in four African countries. The role of higher education in skill formation systems is neglected, although it fundamentally shapes the skill formation system in South Africa and many other countries. This project is a large international bid in which I am a primary investigator, with a co-primary investigator in the UK, Professor Elaine Unterhalter. The project aims to examine global debates concerning higher education as a public good in the context of the lived realities, and political economic constraints and opportunities of contemporary sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Curriculum and social justice: this project explores conceptually approaches to the social justice role of education. Much work on skills development takes insufficient account of educational theories. This conceptual project which I am working on with Professor Yael Shalem, investigates conceptions of social justice propagated by different theories of knowledge and curriculum, in South Africa and more broadly.
  • Education and inequality: I am working with the newly launched Southern Centre for the Study of Inequality coordinating the education strand of its work, investigating different ways in which education is implicated in the reproduction of inequality, as well as ways in which this can be ruptured.

I am open to expressions of interest in the field of skills development, regarding:

  • Masters and doctoral supervision and funding
  • Postdoctoral fellowships
  • Visiting graduate students
  • Visiting scholars/professors, for short- or long-term visits including during sabbatical periods
  • Collaboration on events, projects or research

Proposals are welcomed on any topics related to skills development, but are particularly welcomed related to the following areas:

  • The roles of education and training in reinforcing or rupturing inequality in society
  • Patterns of skill formation systems in developing countries
  • The relationships between skills development and industrial development in a developing country context
  • the ways in which knowledge is developed in curricula and deployed in workplaces in specific occupations

The South African Research Chairs Initiative (SARChI) is funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) and administered by the National Research Foundation (NRF). The South African Research Chair in Skills Development was awarded to Professor Stephanie Allais, who is the Chair holder and leads the programme. The Chair is hosted at the Centre for Researching Education and Labour, at the School of Education of the University of the Witwatersrand.