The renewed push by the government to expand technical education is a realisation that youth unemployment is not just an economic issue but a political ticking time bomb.
But this problem is not unique to Kenya. According to Unesco, at least 475 million new jobs need to be created over the next decade globally. Those jobs are expected to cater for more than 73 million youth currently unemployed and the 40 million new annual entrants to the labour market.
Subsequently, a fledgling and small technical and vocational education training (TVET) sector in Sub-Saharan Africa is being bulldozed to respond to youth labour needs. In most countries, TVET is characterised by a significant lack of practical relevance and responsiveness to labour market needs, poor quality teaching, insufficient infrastructure and equipment and low quality graduates.
Nonetheless, TVET is not a new phenomenon in Kenya. It has been viewed as a central pillar in addressing youth unemployment before and after Independence. In 1966, the nascent independent government popularised village polytechnics as the answer to alleviating unemployment among primary school leavers that had no chance of joining high school.
According to Dr David Court, a former research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Nairobi, village polytechnics were aimed at giving primary school leavers opportunities to earn money and contribute to rural development.
In effect, village polytechnics and harambee institutes of technology movements of the late 1960s and 1970s respectively tied nicely with Jomo Kenyatta’s stern message of “go back to the farm”.
Thereafter in 1986, the regime of former President Daniel arap Moi undertook major educational reforms by setting vocational curriculum right into primary and secondary education sectors. This was meant to equip the youth with vocational skills for self-reliance in self-employment occupations in rural villages.
However, in his review of the 8-4-4 and specifically its TVET segment, Dr Kilemi Mwiria, the former assistant minister for Education, noted: “The whole policy shift, including restructuring the education structure was ill-conceived to address the crisis of youth unemployment.”
According to Mwiria, blaming the 7-4-2-3 system of education for the unemployment crisis was just a political fiat. “The causes of unemployment were not well understood and believing that TVET was the solution without first understanding the problem was in itself misplaced,” said Mwiria, in a 2005 study, ‘Vocationalisation for Secondary Education: Kenya Case Study.’
With Kenya envisioning to become a middle-income economy by 2030, the view seems to have changed on how to use TVET as a tool for job-creation.
According to Moses Oketch, a professor of international education policy and development at the Institute of Education in University College London, there is no illusion that basic integration of TVET in the education system will achieve those national ambitions.
“There is recognition of rapid urbanisation and the need to create better jobs, as well as to expand the informal sector and not merely to retain the youth in the villages teaching them to appreciate agriculture,” says Oketch.
In the last 10 years, enrollment in TVET increased from 71,513 students in 2009 to 275,139 as of last year. In real terms, this was an overall increase of 385 per cent, or an average of about 43 per cent annually.
But whereas that seemed to be fair progress, TVET remained the smallest education sub-sector compared to primary, secondary and university segments.
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Although TVET is often regarded by Sub-Saharan Africa governments as a magic wand that would transform the sub-region’s underdeveloped economies, the sector is unattractive to students. In Kenya, many students snub diploma and certificate courses.
John Muraguri, the chief executive of the Kenya Universities and Colleges Central Placement Service, says most students and their parents have adopted a very poor attitude towards non-degree technical courses.
Kenyans’ lack of dalliance with TVET goes way back to early 20th Century when Africans regarded vocational training as a ploy for them to provide cheap labour to the European settlers.
It is under this backdrop that they rejected recommendations of Phelps-Stokes Commission of 1924 that thought agricultural education and other forms of basic vocational education would be very useful to an African.
Indeed, village polytechnics that emerged after Independence were more or less seen as shadows of the much hated colonial education policy. That tag was almost inherited by the practical segment of the initial 8-4-4 system of education. This was something the Kibaki regime gave a wide berth and preferred to ride on the populist crest of free primary education that became its signature to the country’s education agenda.
Uhuru Kenyatta is under pressure not just to etch his name in history books as the one who led Kenya to middle-income economy status but also as the President who solved unemployment. That is a hard call, but the question remains as to whether the old, ill-equipped and maligned vocational training will take Uhuru to the finish line.