KENYA: Major plan to improve training institutions

Kenya is to spend US$56 million in donor funding to strengthen vocational and technical training countrywide, and help boost the country's skills base. The plan includes building new technical institutions and elevating some to national polytechnic status.

Each of Kenya's eight provinces will have a national polytechnic, said officials at the Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology.

The government will also replace two polytechnics - Kenya Polytechnic - in Nairobi and Mombasa Polytechnic that were recently upgraded to university colleges, leaving a big hole in the sub-sector's training capacity.

At least $25 million sourced from The Netherlands government will be used to buy modern equipment and train teachers while $31 million from the African Development Bank will be used to build new technical institutes to replace those promoted to polytechnic status.

"We want in total to have 13 new polytechnics so as to increase the intake of students seeking vocational training," said Higher Education Secretary Professor Harry Kanne. "For the economy to grow, we need to invest heavily in this sector." The government hoped to increase enrolment by at least 20,000 students."

The Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports runs at least 750 youth polytechnics - grassroots vocational training schools - and is also reviving these learning centres, most of which have become run-down and unable to offer adequate services.

The multi-million dollar twin initiatives are seen by experts as a double-edged strategy to increase access to higher education as well as fight biting youth unemployment. Government officials said that tertiary and technical institutions would be the key to these efforts.

Youth unemployment has been rising and the accompanying serious social problems of increased crime and dependency present a major challenge to Kenya's coalition government. Young people form 60% of the population and they have for decades been at the periphery of major national economic and development initiatives because of lack of capital.

By upgrading some technical colleges to become national polytechnics and developing youth polytechnics, the government hopes to improve access to training among youth, improving their chances of securing jobs.

Youth polytechnics started as low-cost, post-primary training centres in rural areas in the 1960s to help stem the problem of low enrolment in secondary schools. The institutions were aimed at absorbing young people who failed to enrol in secondary schools.

They specialise in courses such as carpentry, accounts, welding, mechanics, catering and teaching and have been Kenya's most important institutions providing vocational skills.

The government wants youth polytechnics to upgrade and also offer training in electrical technologies, construction, refrigeration and air conditioning technology, food processing, information and communication technology, and leather technology.

"We are implementing a new curriculum in youth polytechnics to help meet the demands of the job market," said Ministry of Youth Affairs Assistant Minister Kabando wa Kabando. The curriculum would enable trainees to progress through various levels of technical training and obtain a technical degree.

The tertiary reforms also include the planned transformation of at least one youth polytechnic in each of Kenya's 210 electoral constituencies into a centre of excellence. The institutions will be better equipped and developed so they are capable of training more than 200 students. Currently, some can hardly accommodate 50 students.

Statistics from the government's Economic Survey for 2010 showed the number of students enrolled in youth polytechnics had been rising and stood at 31,344 in 2009, up from 29,700 in 2008. But the upgrading of Kenya Polytechnic and Mombasa Polytechnic last year led to a decrease of 14,000 students enrolled in technical institutions countrywide.

This is the number the higher education ministry wants to recoup with the planned expansion of technical colleges and opening of new ones. Government has predicted a surge in demand for technical education as more institutions diversify the courses they offer and align them with labour market demands.

The initiatives come at a time when Kenya is fighting a skills shortage that could hinder the smooth implementation of Vision 2030, the country's long-term economic blueprint which is founded on a strong human capital base. Experts said that for Kenya to become industrialised by 2020, it must strengthen a technical and vocational education and training system that has been eroded by low investment.

Technical institutions have in the past few years also come under threat as universities sought expansion avenues to resolve an admission crisis plaguing higher education. This has seen universities collaborate with technical institutions and change the programmes they offer.

Universities have also been taking over teacher colleges and upgrading technical colleges in their search for expanded infrastructure. The government recently announced a ban on such take-overs, concerned that mid-tier training institutions were being wiped out.

"For years, higher education has focused more on growth of universities, leaving out polytechnics and other technical tertiary colleges," said Simon Kinyua, a lecturer in Nairobi.
"This is dangerous to the economy as it needs both professional and technical skills to drive growth."

Educationists also see the new initiatives as a way of improving Kenya's industrial competitiveness in the region as markets expand through integration of the East African Community. A few weeks ago the EAC launched a common market that will see its five member countries open up their borders to goods, labour and services.

Recent surveys have indicated that despite rising public spending on education, Kenya is yet to achieve targets in the sector, especially in promoting youth training.

"Despite the rapid expansion of higher education over the past two decades, challenges to access, content, quality and equity remain," said the Kenya Human Development Report 2009 released last month.

These included inadequate capacity to cater for growing demand for university places, a mismatch between skills acquired and the demands of industry, gender imbalances in the sciences and humanities, rigid admission criteria and limited opportunities for credit transfer, said the report co-authored by the government and United Nations Development Programme.