The inaugural Interdisciplinary African Studies Seminar at UCL was delivered by Professor Moses Oketch, Professor of International Education Policy and Development at the Institute of Education, on 20th October 2016. Professor Oketch presented an overview of his ongoing research into the role of Technical, Vocational Education and Training (TVET) in Sub-Saharan Africa and its relationship to employment.
Having recently read an article on the problems of defining and identifying ‘youth’ in Botswana for a Research Methods class, it was particularly illuminating to see how issues of self-definition and generational struggle have impacted the perceived stability of governments and the welfare of economies. Professor Oketch provided a fresh perspective on the potential long-term outcomes of the general focus on ‘academic’ education in the region as driven by post-independence governments and external agencies. He alerted us to the fact that, while universal primary education may be a worthy development goal, a society cannot function if every young person becomes a lawyer or a doctor.
Indeed, the so-called African ‘youth bulge’ – the working-age population increased by 25% between 2000 and 2015 and is set to double again by 2045 – has combined with negative attitudes towards Technical and Vocational Education and Training and decades of narrow definitions of academic achievement, leaving many young Africans highly-qualified but with little hope of employment. While lawyers, doctors, academics and civil servants are clearly crucial to a nation’s smooth-running and well-being, it takes, as the saying goes, all sorts to make a world.
Jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa do exist and economic growth in the last five years has been positive in most cases. However, these jobs are mainly to be found in the industries which contribute most to Africa’s economic growth, especially the service industries and the construction of ever-more comprehensive infrastructure and not in civil society. However, Professor Oketch points out that the vast majority of workers employed on construction sites are brought in by companies from overseas, as skilled local labour is not available. There is demand for African workers in Africa, but young African workers do not seem to be able to supply the skills required.
Even once governments have realised that there is a shortage of technically trained young workers in the labour market, it appears that they have not devoted enough thought and time to devising policies for effective delivery of TVET. Professor Oketch furnished us with the examples of Ghana and Kenya, both of which introduced TVET alongside general education in the 1960s. However, studies have yet to be completed regarding whether this training has had much of an effect on the employment records of those students who took part.
The nature of TVET is also constantly changing. Whilst in the 1960s, so-called ‘traditional technologies’, such as metal-work, carpentry and mechanics all came under the umbrella of TVET, they have now arguably been joined by training in the use of ‘New Technologies’ including some forms of ICT and Computing, both of which are essential for work in the service industries so important to so many economies in the region. Consequently, any analysis of TVET which took place in the 1960s and 70s is likely to be limited in its capacity to predict the outcomes of TVET in the present-day.
Despite the opportunities available, many young people and their families have come to believe that to work in a role which requires TVET is not an appropriate aspiration for any young person who sees themselves as academically able. Therefore, it seems that a change of attitude is necessary if young people are to engage in alternative forms of education when social capital is attached to only certain professions. For Professor Oketch, a key part of instituting such change in attitude is the development of TVET accreditation. He argued that, while some young people are already gaining skills and experiences in practical industries through the informal sector, which accounts for around 80% of employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, the regulation and legislation of TVET schemes would allow employees to gain official recognition and therefore advertise themselves with confidence to other potential employers, including those in the formal sector.
Throughout the talk and during the questions that followed, it became clear how valuable Professor Oketch considers the role of private-public sector partnerships in the development of such schemes. His vision for the future of TVET in Sub-Saharan Africa involves governments working alongside businesses to develop on-the-job training programmes for young Africans. I felt that, at least until attitudes about the relative value of certain kinds of education could be challenged, TVET schemes needed to result in a form of accreditation comparable to a traditional university degree, which are perceived as the most obvious route to a secure and respectable future.
The potential for this research project to inform and advance policy is clear, particularly as the longitudinal research has been in progress since 2000. I hope that policy-makers both in Africa and elsewhere take note of its findings. Both individual governments and the international community have a responsibility to address the disengagement and dissatisfaction of young people, who, in so many places, have been taught that directing effort and energy into their education will lead to positive outcomes. As fantastic as rising GDPs in Africa may appear, if they mask high unemployment and increasing frustration, they are surely unsustainable, particularly as populations continue to grow and life-expectancies increase. If governments want young people to be invested in the economic success of the state and its survival more generally, they have to be included in the anatomy of that state and not left at the periphery as a symbol of the government’s failure to meet development goals or manifesto promises.
Professor Oketch’s work encourages us to consider what it means to be educated and whether education can be considered a good in itself if it doesn’t lead to tangible improvements in standards of living. I would be inclined to say that all forms of education are valuable, but suggesting to young people that some skills and experiences are more valuable than others will inevitably lead to an unbalanced and tension-filled society where people identify their self-worth based on the kind of education they have received, not on how they use that education to achieve their own goals and those of the communities they live in. This is an observation which is salient far beyond Sub-Saharan Africa and should be examined in more detail in any country that wishes to inspire innovation and progress through its young people.
Catherine Hodge is a student on the UCL African Studies Masters Programme, taking the Health pathway. Catherine conducted her undergraduate studies in Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Cambridge and is interested in the ways in which local and international politics impact upon health and well-being in Africa. She has a particular interest in the treatment of populations following national trauma, when narratives of speedy recovery may be politically advantageous to regimes. Catherine is very excited to be able to engage in the inter-disciplinary study of Africa at UCL.