TVETs repositioned to bring about socio-economic change

It is now or never for Kenya as its government banks on technical and vocational education and training institutions (TVETs) to ready the country for the future. The pace of industrialisation and technological advancements has signalled to countries keen on development and growth that they no longer have the luxury of time.

For a long time, Kenya’s TVET sector has been shunned by many higher education seekers who preferred university education. Parents have admitted to preferring and pushing for their children to join universities as opposed to colleges and TVETs, given the respect that has, for a long time, been accorded to university graduates.

This, in turn, has appeared to have brought about a skewed funding reality with sponsorships and funding focusing on universities, a fact that saw TVETs slowly lose their value, despite the many capable graduates they produce yearly.

“I am a carpenter by profession, an art that I learned at a technical training institution. I, however, want my son to join a university and work in an office environment,” said one parent, who wished to remain anonymous.

According to the parent, the blue-collar market is just not as lucrative as one would wish. Some parents would rather have their children, who failed to meet a certain university qualification, take a bridging course and try to re-sit the exam, than have them join a college or TVET for a lower-grade course.

A bridging course is a short course that allows the student to re-sit the subject or subjects that the student did not perform well enough in or even failed in their final secondary school exam, thus gaining access to university if they pass it.

To qualify for a university placement in Kenya, one has to attain a minimum grade of at least a C+. Anything below that is regarded as a failure, and one would have the option of joining a TVET institution or college and work their way up from there or repeat their secondary school education.

Skills gaps

This negative image that society had of TVETs led to an overall negative impact, which experts say has contributed to the skills gap in many industries today.

The Kenyan government has, over the past couple of years, been trying to ‘fix’ this negative notion as it pushes for major reforms in the TVET sector. Its plan is to reinvent TVETs and turn them into reputable institutions that can help with national prosperity and global competitiveness.

Among the first major reforms made by the government was the access to student loans through the Higher Education Loans Board, or HELB, by TVET students to help them pay for their tuition and accommodation while they study.

The HELB loan used to be an advantage that was, once upon a time, accessible only to university-going students.

In addition to the HELB loan, the government also reduced the annual fee of TVET students from KES96,000 (about US$661) to KES56,000 (about US$386). This is a move that saw an increase in the number of students who joined these institutions.

“The fee reduction was quite helpful for many such as myself,” said Antony Wafula, an ICT trainee at the Kisumu National Polytechnic (KNP).

According to Wafula, he had to drop out of school after finishing his high school education due to financial constraints and, instead, worked as a delivery man at a local supermarket.

And, like most of the students who join TVETs, Wafula had also failed to attain the expected university qualifications, but still wanted to be a professional at something.

“When the government announced the reduction in fees, I decided to enrol at the polytechnic using the little savings I had,” he told University World News.

The effects of the fee changes and further reforms in universities and TVETs are already being felt in the 2023 enrolments, as TVETs recorded a massive increase in the sector’s student intake from 92,000 students in 2018 to 320,000 in 2023.

Recognition of TVETs

Samuel Asiago, a trainer at KNP, commends the government for some of the steps it has taken to highlight the importance of TVETs.

“I am glad the government is finally realising the potential of TVETs in producing an industry-ready workforce that can help in advancing the country’s economy,” said Asiago.

“Kenya’s jua kali industry is full of competent youth who are mostly high school dropouts who learned their various skills from seeing and emulating. They may not have been able to pass their theory exams, but certainly understand how to do things practically,” Asiago explained to University World News.

The jua kali industry comprises various informal small-scale local industries such as carpentry, shoe repair, welding and metalwork, automobile repair, tailoring, artisanry among many other hands-on activities.

Asiago added that having an academic certification from these institutions can give the trainees the ability to apply for jobs and compete in big industries or even start their own businesses and companies.

“The garage where I take my car for maintenance has employed a high school dropout who is very good at vehicle wiring. Imagine if he had the documents to start his own shop?” he added.

Retooling TVETs

According to the Technical and Vocational Training Authority (TVETA), industrial revolution and the rapid changes in technology require the retooling, re-modifying, rescaling and overall reforming of TVET training in order to meet the future demands of an industrialised nation.

TVETA is a public corporate agency established under the TVET Act No 29 of 2013 to regulate and coordinate training in the country through licensing, registration and accreditation of programmes, institutions and trainers.

During a recent third international research conference, held at the Kiambu Institute of Science and Technology (KIST), the principal secretary, state department for Technical and Vocational Education and Training, Dr Esther Thaara Muoria, explained the government’s plan of aligning the TVET sector with the current and future industrial needs of the nation.

“In an endeavour for the TVET subsector to initiate socio-economic revolution in Kenya, my state department has started a rigorous curriculum reform to ensure that we shift from theory to industrial-based training for enhanced hands-on skills whereby students will be exposed to 70% practical and 30% theory activities,” said Muoria.

This, she said, will increase their employability, as employers are not interested in their certificates, but rather in what they can do.

The research conference brought together specialists from technical training institutions, employer associations, manufacturers, scientists and students.

To assist with the practical learning approach, the government, through the ministry of education intends to set up factories in TVETs, a move that will also help in the actualisation of the competence-based curriculum which is still in its early stages of implementation.

“Globally, the labour market is favouring people with technical skills, and TVET institutions are best suited to develop these kinds of skills among the youth. University students are known to concentrate more on research, while the TVETS are the ones that focus more on the technical skills,” said Bonface Kamau, the business development manager at ABE Global, a non-profit skills-development organisation.

“The government is doing a good job at elevating technical skills within our labour market, which makes everyone feel that the knowledge and education they have is important. I have seen students who have graduated with a university degree go back to a TVET and get a technical qualification required for the labour market,” said Kamau.

He explained that the government also needs to bring in the private TVET trainers to help accommodate the surplus students who failed to gain entry into universities, as opposed to their focusing only on the government-sponsored TVETs.

“Not everyone can be accommodated in the government TVETs, and some end up enrolling in the private TVETs and colleges, where the government also needs to lend a helping hand,” he said.

‘I prefer TVET graduates’

Pheunas Buluma, who owns an electronics repair shop, says that he has employed two assistants who have diplomas from technical training institutions, adding that he does not have to waste time training them in the workplace.

“I prefer TVET graduates, since they come with a lot of hands-on experience, which means that I can trust them with difficult tasks even when they are fresh from school,” said Buluma.

The government also saw the education sector receive the biggest chunk of the 2023 financial year’s budget allocation, where out of the KES3.6 trillion (about US$24.7 billion) KES628.6 billion was set aside for education.

Out of this, the TVETs have received KES28 billion, which is KES5 billion up from the previous financial year.

The cabinet secretary for ICT, Eliud Owalo, also highlighted the government’s plan to set up digital laboratories in all TVET institutions as a means to enable young people to acquire digital skills that will help them secure international jobs.

The government also has plans for building TVETs in every constituency to help bridge the gap left in terms of accommodation.

“This idea that students who fail to attain university qualifications are failures in society should be outdated as not everyone can be book-smart. Our TVETs are full of skilled trainees who are able to perfectly assemble vehicles, repair electronics, build roads and houses and design clothes, among many other things,” added Asiago.

“The just-approved government housing programme will provide a good avenue for our trainees to showcase and implement their skills for the nation to see. This housing programme is going to require plumbers, architects, electricians, masons, welders and drivers among many other hands-on workers who can all be supplied by TVETs.

“TVETs can easily help address the youth unemployment crisis facing the nation while also meeting its industrialisation needs.”