High level TVET institutions needed more than universities

The following quote is intended to provoke debate and conversation about our education system and the society's perception toward university education vis-à-vis Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) as a means to a livelihood. While some might consider it a joke others might deem it a fact.

The following quote is intended to provoke debate and conversation about our education system and the society’s perception toward university education vis-à-vis Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) as a means to a livelihood. While some might consider it a joke others might deem it a fact.

The quote: “At the university most First Class students get technical seats, some become Doctors, some Engineers and some Lawyers. The Second Class pass, and then continue to study MBA, become Administrators and control the First Class. The Third Class and Fourth Class enter politics and business and become ministers and entrepreneurs and control the other classes”. 


The contention of this article is that while it is vital that we produce as many highly qualified professionals, the Fourth Class category together with those who do not make it beyond high school is critical today for the development of the country’s infrastructure, industries and jobs creation. Strategies are needed to mass-produce its members.


In Kiswahili ‘Jua Kali’ means hot sun or burning sun and was used to refer to the fabrication of metallic, wooden, textile and many other types of items by school dropouts in make-shift structures and sometimes in the open under the sun - and rain. Today the “Jua Kali” informal sector has developed into a vibrant and significant contributor to many African economies and has created hundreds of thousands of jobs. In many developing world countries it is the biggest employer. Many university graduates are now seeking jobs in this informal sector where their employers are those who never went beyond secondary or primary education.


In many parts of the developing world in the 70s and 80s almost all graduates who joined the private sector would immediately get jobs with very attractive benefits such as housing and cars. Today, let alone the attractive job benefits, getting a job is a real challenge and the main reason is the lack of job-related skills. Thousands of graduates walk the streets, some for years, in search of a job. In many countries graduates are doing jobs that have nothing to do with what they studied with many working as drivers of public transport vehicles and others working as waiters in hotels.

Sometime this year while conducting Customer Care training for the Rwanda National Parks employees I was surprised to find graduates working as Guides. Today, when employers are recruiting, a key question during the interview is “what skills do you have”. Graduates of TVET institutions are more convincing when responding. That is the reality of today. Have we prepared our youth to accept and face this reality?

Perhaps a key disparity between university graduates and TVET institutions graduates, a disparity that is critical in the country’s development, is that graduates of TVET institutions are better positioned and have a better attitude to creating jobs for themselves and for others. The ability to create jobs for ourselves (Kwihangira Umurimo), a policy that the government has indeed given due weight, is what the country needs today more than the inadequate theory offered by most local universities.

It is common knowledge that the majority of good mechanics, electronic technicians and many managers and chefs in the major hotels are foreign. Similarly, most of the people in the construction business know that if you want quality finishing for a building or a piece of furniture you look outside Rwanda.

In most African countries with major Chinese investment thousands of Chinese can be seen doing simple technical jobs that should be done by Africans and the Chinese explanation in most cases is that there are no locals qualified to do these tasks. This is a clear indication that skills development still has some way to go before many African countries are self sufficient.

While it is becoming obvious that high level TVET education offers better job opportunities than university education, it is still a challenge to convince parents to send their children to a TVET institution instead of a university. It requires a shift in our way of thinking. My daughter quit university at the end of her second year to pursue a career in film production and after days of reflecting I came to the conclusion that perhaps she understood the times better than me. I think she does.

Parents need to start thinking out of the box and understand that to survive today one needs occupational skills. As part of career guidance in schools entrepreneurs should be invited to give talks about their businesses to graduating high schools students which should enlighten them on whether to go on to the university or to acquire business skills leading to the line of business they would wish to venture into. In developed countries high school students are taught entrepreneurship and many are able to venture into business straight from high school.  

There is increasing recognition that higher technical and vocational skills are crucial in enhancing competitiveness and contributing to social inclusion, employment, and in particular poverty reduction. All developed countries got where they are by empowering their people with high level skills which were needed to run industries. Emerging markets countries have done the same. We need to do likewise and prepare our youth to develop a mindset that will enable them face a very competitive environment.

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