Tapping into the power of technical education

African technical universities can help to add value to primary commodities and other natural resources, support economic transformation, provide technology solutions to small and medium enterprises, and contribute to wealth creation as part of enhancing technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, on the continent.

This was the view of Dr George Afeti, a tertiary education and TVET consultant, who delivered a presentation last month on the role of universities in shaping TVET education as part of the webinar series hosted by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa’s Working Group on Higher Education and the Association of African Universities.*

According to Afeti, Africa was witnessing greater awareness of the need for high-level TVET skills to drive economic transformation and growth, boost agricultural production, enhance value chains and provide technological solutions.

Greater awareness

“We are seeing greater awareness by government and policy makers that we need high-level TVET skills,” he said, particularly because a shortage of special skills in a country often meant that foreign investors were forced to bring their own staff.

Afeti is chairman of the African Union TVET Expert Group and vice chair of the consultative advisory group of the World Bank’s Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology, or PASET, initiative. He has written extensively on TVET and skills development and published a book on differentiation and articulation within the higher education systems of Africa. He also drafted the African Union’s TVET Strategy to foster youth employment in Africa.

In the webinar, he said after a long period of near-neglect and marginalisation, TVET is now universally acknowledged as a driver of socio-economic development because of its important role in the formation of skilled human capital, particularly the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs.

He said TVET has “erroneously” been associated with the acquisition of basic and low-level skills for employment in the informal economy, an association that has frequently led educators, and even parents, to consider it fit for the less academically-gifted learner.

Colonial antecedents

“This erroneous perception of TVET has antecedents in the colonial history of Africa when the curriculum emphasis of the early schools was on learning that would produce administrative assistants and interpreters who would support the colonialists in their governance and trading activities,” said Afeti.

Afeti said the acquisition of TVET skills was conducted either in formal training through institutions with a standardised national curriculum; non-formal training offered through community-based organisations but examined nationally; and informal training in terms of which master craftsmen and women passed their skills on to students as they worked on the job.

Afeti said that high-level TVET skills were more effective when obtained after secondary school through polytechnic colleges and technical universities.

According to Afeti, differentiation and diversification should be one of the cornerstone policies of tertiary or higher education in African countries, allowing for both technical and academic education.

According to the African Center for Economic Transformation, about half of the 10 million or so students graduating yearly from the tertiary education systems of Africa do not transition directly into employment.

Skills strategies

He said national skills strategies should respond to broader strategies such as the African Development Bank’s Human Capital Strategy for Africa 2014-2018, Jobs for Youth in Africa 2016-2025, The African Union’s Agenda 2063 and Sustainable Development Goal Four, which aims to substantially increase the numbers of youths and adults with vocational training skills.

Training institutions should be called upon to promote science and technology, information communication technology or ICT and TVET education, he said.

“Under this idea, there is need to develop and implement quality driven STEM-based curricula,” he added.

Afeti said institutions should collaborate with industry in curriculum design and development while integrating ICT in teaching and learning. Training institutions need to raise awareness of TVET through outreach programmes, open days, the media and publications, as well as maintaining critical linkages with secondary schools.

“There is need to design and deliver skills training programmes that specifically target economic transformation, industrialisation and job creation,” he said.

Part of the strategy includes identifying and training for skills to support value addition to primary commodities and natural resources.

Priority in training must be given in the areas of clean energy and power systems, including solar and other renewable energy sources, manufacturing, building and construction, he said.

Building quality

According to Afeti, in order to develop quality TVET sectors, students should be admitted on the basis of sound academic qualifications as well as an aptitude for practice-oriented learning, and teachers should have relevant academic qualifications as well as professional and industrial experience. “You cannot impart what you do not have,” said Afeti, in reference to the value of on-the-job experience.

To this end, Afeti said there should be an emphasis on industrial attachments for both staff and students, and support for employees to upgrade and update their skills.

Applied and practical research, innovation and business development should be promoted, he said, and TVET institutions should undertake joint activities with industry partners including SMEs. Institutions also have a responsibility to provide technology solutions and support to enable enterprises to innovate and grow, as well as practical skills training and business development support to workers and businesses in the informal economy.

While technical skills were critical, Afeti said all TVET learning programmes should incorporate peace education and conflict management skills in order to promote a culture of peace and global citizenship.

Funding options

While funding for quality programmes was expensive, Afeti said funders could be asked to participate in performance-based allocations to institutions. Education, training and endowment funds could also be established and institutions themselves could seek multi-partnership, multi-purpose funding through the private sector, civil society organisations and foundations.

Albeit controversial, Afeti said a “communication tax” on mobile phone companies could be used to support selected engineering programmes. Yet another avenue might be to tap into research and training funds offered by funding agencies such as the World Bank and African Development Bank. The diaspora was a source not only of direct funding, but also technical expertise, cutting-edge technologies, and short-term visiting faculty.

Afeti said governments had a responsibility to implement business-friendly economic policies that encourage the creation, modernisation and expansion of enterprises.

“When business grows, the demand for high-level TVET also grows; more TVET graduates will be employed and additional opportunities for training in new skills will emerge, further enhancing industry-university collaborations as well as the attractiveness and image of TVET education."

“We used to call for education for all, now it must be TVET for all,” he said.

*The African Association of Universities is set to hold its 14th General Conference and Golden Jubilee Celebrations from 5-8 June 2017 in Accra, Ghana.