Technical colleges – The new hope for economic growth

Kenya has slashed fees for students in technical and vocational education institutions and raised public funding in its latest bid to grow the critical skills base needed to achieve the country’s economic ambitions.

The new fees structure will be effected in September. It will mean students will pay below US$150 on average annually for certificate courses in technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges. This reform was announced by Kenya’s Deputy President William Ruto in what has been a slew of interventions focused on the colleges.

Treasury Cabinet Secretary Henry Rotich said last month the government had allocated US$160 million for technical institutions in the new financial year that began on 1 July.

“The provision of quality and relevant education and training is critical in equipping Kenyans with skills necessary for industrialisation. For this reason, the government will focus on improving and expanding technical and vocational education and training institutes in order to equip the youth with the relevant skills necessary for industrialisation,” said Rotich.

Expansion of technical sector

The funding, which is over 30% higher than last year, is expected to aid the recruitment of an additional 2,000 technical training instructors and capitation grants for students. This will also see the establishment of 15 new technical training institutes and the development of a curriculum development assessment and certification centre.

The reduction of fees for students in technical institutions is a calculated financial intervention that is expected to woo more students into these institutions. Additionally, the government will now give an annual bursary of US$300 for every student who joins the technical institutions. The students will access the funding through the Higher Education Loans Board, the agency that disburses loans to university students on behalf of the government.

This is expected to buttress the government's plan to have at least 70,000 learners in technical and vocational education institutions in the next five years. Kenya plans to have at least one vocational and technical institution in each of the 290 constituencies in the next two years.

The initiatives are the latest in a string of efforts to revive a sector that has in the recent past faced collapse as focus in the education sector shifted to universities.

In April, Education Cabinet Secretary Amina Mohamed directed the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service, the government-backed admissions agency, to enrol at least 500,000 secondary school graduates in technical institutions. This will be the biggest single group to join the institutions. Only 28,866 students had at that time applied to enter colleges.

Students who fail to get admission to universities traditionally enrol in colleges. But rising fees coupled with high living costs have left students and guardians, especially from poor households, unable to meet the cost of post-school learning.

Critical mass of skills

Educationists say the success of Kenya’s growth ambitions is hinged on an adequate supply of a critical mass of technical skills.

“We must ensure that the quality of education in these institutions is of top quality by re-equipping them. Modern machines are critical; a college cannot claim to offer technical courses if it lacks the right equipment. We also need to upgrade the expertise of the trainers. Quality training presupposes the existence of top-notch tutors who apply innovative approaches to teaching. There is an urgent need to revamp the curriculum. Massive technological advancements have taken place,” said Simon Gicharu, chairman and founder of Mount Kenya University, Kenya’s largest private university by student numbers.

The government said it has identified technical courses such as automotive engineering, plant engineering, masonry, plumbing and other crafts as key drivers of its growth plan. The country’s economic blueprint for the next five years is built on four pillars: food security, affordable healthcare, manufacturing and housing.

The emphasis on technical education has received support from some quarters.

“There is every justification to expedite the education reform that seeks to recreate the curriculum from mere knowledge acquisition to skills and competence. Kenya must refocus higher education by promoting technical and vocational training and changing the degree curriculum,” said an editorial in the Daily Nation, Kenya’s largest newspaper by circulation.

The renewed focus in the technical training sector has also attracted interest from private organisations who argue that for Kenya to become industrialised by 2030, it must strengthen the technical and vocational education and training system which is currently eroded by low investment.

They argue that the country is fighting a skills shortage that could hinder the smooth implementation of Kenya Vision 2030, the country's long-term economic blueprint which is founded on a strong human capital base.

In 2016, KCB, Kenya’s biggest bank by assets and profitability, launched its '2Jiajiri' programme, a youth-focused project that is enrolling 10,000 youths annually into technical and vocational training institutions. The bank is spending US$100 million annually on financing youth-led businesses under the programme. Equity Bank, Kenya’s second biggest bank, is supporting at least 3,000 students in technical and vocational colleges across the country.

The shift in policy comes as the World Bank recently warned that Kenya and by extension East Africa risked missing its long-term economic growth targets due to a widening disconnect between labour market skills needs and the graduates of higher education institutions. This was as a result of a general decline in the supply of technical and vocational skills, constraining economic prospects.