What should be done to fully strengthen technical education

Kipkirui Langat, Director-General TVETA and faculty member, Technical University of Kenya. [File, Standard]

Technical university also referred to as technological university, institute of technology, university of technology, technological educational institute, technical college, polytechnic university or just polytechnic is an institution of tertiary education that specialises in engineering, technology, applied and natural sciences. Some of these institutions have been in existence since the 18th century.

That said, the conversion of many polytechnics or former TVET schools into university-like institutions has caused concern. Some of them lack specialised intermediate technical professionals to link to industries, resulting in a shortage of skills in some fields. This has led to increased unemployment of graduates.

This trend has made several countries to reposition the place of technical universities as the apex of academic and TVET, offering a diverse range of academic programmes, vocational, career-focused, professional and courses. 

British polytechnics were granted university status in 1992 creating new universities which continue to offer strongly vocational/career-oriented and professional programmes.

Germany has one of the oldest university systems in Europe dominated, since the 18th century, by the ideal of research university. However, after World War II, there have been considerable pressure to open up and diversify the system, producing a landscape of universities, technical universities, colleges of art and music, specialist institutions, universities of applied sciences, among others.

The technical universities originally restricted their teaching to technical and engineering disciplines but have developed a wider suite of programmes that now include the arts and humanities. Their primary focus, however, continues to be on engineering and applied sciences.

For many years, the Finnish government has seen a strong link between higher education, research and technology as drivers of development. From the 1960s, the government created some new universities in different parts of the country with a strong emphasis on engineering and technology. 

There was also a perceived need to support the high end of research with higher levels of education and skills spread more generally throughout the Finnish society. Today, over 30 polytechnics are spread throughout the country with a mission to support regional development and innovation systems. Polytechnic enrolment accounts for over 60 per cent of higher education enrolment in Finland and the sector is highly regarded. Practice and project work are pursued in close co-operation with business and industry. 

In 1996, South Africa proposed the establishment of a comprehensive institution through the merger of a technical institute and a university. The idea was informed by the fact that an institutional type that integrates university and technical programmes would be well placed to contribute to addressing a range of goals central to government’s human resource development strategy. All comprehensive universities offer programmes with varying entry requirements, including articulation and progression pathways for students from TVET into degree programmes. 

In Ghana, technical universities were established by the Technical Universities Act of 2016 to provide higher education in engineering, science and technology-based disciplines, technical and vocational education and training, applied arts and related disciplines for the development of the industrial and technological base.

Kenya has not been left behind in the quest to reform education and training. In 2012 through a sessional paper on policy framework for reforming education and training in Kenya, a raft of reforms was initiated to enhance access, equality, quality and relevance in TVET, among others. This was to target skills development in priority sectors in line with Vision 2030.

To achieve this, the government proposed to expand TVET institutions which included technical and vocational colleges, national polytechnics and technical universities. Subsequent government directive designated six institutions to be established as technical universities as per the universities act 2012. Institutions which have so far been converted to universities are Technical University of Kenya, Technical University of Mombasa, and Dedan Kimathi University of Technology.

Others are Meru University of Science and Technology, Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology and Co-operative University of Kenya. Others, especially those that were initially TVETs, have tended to structure their programmes in the line of technical universities by retaining some TVET programmes.

However, to a large extent, these universities are operating like conventional universities as there is no framework to make them operate in the true sense of a technical university. For example, there is no direct working relationship between the universities and TVET institutions especially in the areas of programme development and delivery or designated upward mobility for TVET graduates. Also, all TVET students in these universities are self-sponsored hence limiting opportunities for those who want to progress their careers.

For Kenya to operationalise technical universities, there is a need to relook at the current policy and legal frameworks to ensure they are in line with standards defining technical universities and where possible provide for restructuring. 

The universities should be able to enroll at least 30 per cent of TVET students under government sponsorship, 40 per cent per cent undergraduate students, another 20 per cent in traditional professional programmes complementing TVET programmes and 10 per cent postgraduate programmes. The framework should also provide for working arrangements between technical universities and national polytechnics in offering some undergraduate TVET programmes by national polytechnics.