TVET – The new stepbrother to higher education?

“It would be wiser not to talk about higher education exclusively [at the upcoming dialogue] but [also] rather TVET”… so that there would be “more appetite to support higher education than TVET”.

I recently received this note from a staff member at a major development agency, indicating that organisation’s current leaning towards educational support in Africa. It was not the first time I had encountered such sentiments.

The exchange brought back the unpleasant memory of the flawed World Bank study and, consequently, the infamous policy rampant on the continent during the 1970s and 1980s. That study – which declared that higher education had a low rate of return and was thus a poor investment – was later blamed for pushing the sector to its near collapse.

In a complete turnabout in 2015, the bank declared that the rate of return on African higher education is not only high, but at 21%, is among the highest in the world.

Even before this announcement, the World Bank was actively engaged in supporting a new initiative to revitalise the African higher education sector through what is known as the African Centers of Excellence initiative. Established in 2014, the project aims to strengthen universities’ capacity to deliver high quality training and applied research, and promote regional specialisation in areas that address specific common regional development challenges. While it was initially confined to West Africa, it has now expanded to include East and Southern Africa.

The African Union’s Pan-African University launched in 2008 predates this World Bank initiative. Established in five major university hubs on the continent, it aims to build institutions of excellence in science, technology, innovation and social sciences as the bedrock for an African pool of higher education and research.

Policy and discourse

UNESCO, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the African Union Commission, and the African Development Bank have acknowledged the ‘key’ and ‘critical’ importance of higher education to Africa’s development and hence the need for sustained and strategic support.

In one of the most prominent publications on higher education titled Peril and Promise: Constructing knowledge societies, the World Bank underscored that higher educational institutions have a “critical role in supporting knowledge driven economic growth and the construction of democratic, socially cohesive societies”. It emphasised that “the skills of the knowledge economy are built at the tertiary education level and improving tertiary education systems should be high on Africa’s development agenda”.

In the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA 2016-25) which was developed on the basis of Agenda 2063, the African Union Commission noted that “Virtually all development players now concur that for any meaningful and sustainable economic growth to be realised and sustained, tertiary education must be centrally placed in the development agenda of nations.”

Be this as it may, not all development players in the sector are equally committed to, or speak of higher education (in Africa) along the lines advanced by these key development regimes. In particular, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can be described as ‘lightweight’ compared to the other policy regimes on higher education.

Expectations were high that higher education would be centrally placed in the SDGs; however, it finds itself at the margins as a “lobby-less sector among the privileged cousins” on the agenda of what The Economist describes as “ambitious on a Biblical scale – not in a good way”. It will be recalled that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the predecessors to the SDGs, were widely criticised for their somewhat tenuous position on higher education.

TVET: A paradigm shift

According to the Continental Strategy for Technical and Vocational Education and Training developed by the African Union Commission, it is a “mistake to consider TVET as a separate sector rather than an integral” part of the education system that leads to the acquisition of knowledge and expertise relevant to society and individual development.

It stresses that “TVET must be seen in a cross-cutting manner and understood as extending from primary education to higher education”. The document recalls that one of the most important developments in the TVET sector in recent years has been a paradigm shift towards a more holistic policy in favour of the sector, making it possible to adopt and recognise the acquisition of skills in all areas of training and learning, be they formal, informal or non-formal.

Thus, TVET should neither be construed nor perceived as a competitor to any of the subsectors of the education system – least of all higher education. Instead, it should be conceived within the entire education sector – and beyond. Indeed, the African Development Bank supports the “development of engineering, research, and science and technology with universities and regional vocational training institutions at the centre”, creating a more harmonious and robust configuration within the subsector.

Sense of competition

Just when we thought that we had dealt with the now defunct World Bank policy and that the tide was rising in favour of the sector, a new and worrying sense of competition with TVET is emerging that could marginalise higher education yet again.

Indeed, a fairly sizeable number of congregants are singing the old, and discarded, World Bank ‘low rate of return from higher education’ hymn that has been described as instrumental in stunting higher education in Africa. These include development partners, (their) political leaders and policy makers.

While there can be no doubt that Africa should increasingly depend on its own resources in implementing its strategically identified development goals as the continent gains economic and financial traction, it should also persuade its ‘serious’ development partners to support these goals, as is provided for in a number of major international conventions governing partnerships.

Finally, it is imperative that the gains made thus far in repositioning higher education at the centre of the development agenda of multiple players are not lost, due to unwarranted and erroneous arguments. The purported competition between higher education and TVET needs to be debunked by evoking the Continental Strategy for TVET and the Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA, 2016-25).

Damtew Teferra is professor of higher education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and founding director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is founding editor-in-chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the African Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa.