The Government of Rwanda has, for the past three years, attempted to redefine and repackage what is traditionally known as ‘Imyuga iciriritse’ (modest professions) among Rwandans.
The objective was to attract more people into this form of education, which has not been necessarily popular among Rwandans.
Historically, there has been a negative public perception associated with vocational skills, not only in Rwanda, but in much of Africa. When we were young, we were always reminded that we had to work harder in school to obtain government university scholarship, or risk joining a vocational training centre since our parents could not afford university tuition.
Actually, some parents would rather have their children study up to Senior Six (A’ Level) and go on to join the labour market, than enrolling in a vocational school after O’ Level (S.3). Vocational training was (and, to a large extent, is still) generally viewed as a poor cousin to the classic education system.
It always came as the last resort, except for the most disadvantaged children, such as deprived orphans. The system also used vocational training as a punishment for slow-learners.
It hounded children it considered to be ‘academic failures’ out of secondary or primary school, and ‘condemned’ them to vocational centres, as a punitive measure. Such a child immediately assumed an inferior status, both at home and in the wider community.
And this perception was strengthened further by the sorry state of vocational training centres. They lacked everything a student needs from education, from qualified teachers, text books, laboratories, industrial attachment, to a safe and tidy learning environment. As a result, their graduates were substandard.
They had no theoretical knowledge (the hallmark of our classic education system to date) and lacked practical skills. As such, they had nothing to offer to the community, and were regarded as losers. Such is the unfortunate and costly image vocational training assumed. And that has been the trend, generation after generation.
Apparently, the problem emanated from how our society understood the whole concept of education. While education should serve as a tool to achieve your professional dream (eg, a job, innovation, discovery), many have wrongly considered it as an achievement itself.
There was a time when students who obtained S.6 certificates but failed to get university admission points would organise big parties because they obtained ‘diplomes’ (certificates). Relatives and friends gathered to celebrate what they considered as a major education feat, even though the student still had no skills to put to use on the job market.
True, there are those who celebrated in appreciation of how far they had come, considering their early education setbacks, but remained focused on achieving their dream career and eventual job. But those ones were the few. Focused students will not celebrate before getting to the finishing line.
Yet, even after the university, our graduates, especially in humanities courses, can hardly boast of a competitive skill acquired during the four or five years they spent at the university. There’s a clear disconnect between syllabi and industry needs, and students are the victims. Many fresh graduates get frustrated once they get to the job market. They are victims of our misconceived understanding of education.
That the 21st century has introduced us to a highly competitive world, there’s need to rethink our education approach. African states must revisit the education concept, with a view of using it to address the fundamental economic challenges we face. Not only do we need to overhaul our entire conventional education system, but also to rebrand and promote vocational training.
While I must commend the Government of Rwanda’s decision to integrate vocational with technical education, the results will come only when the public starts to view TVET (Technical and Vocational Education and Training) in a more positive light.
But for that to happen, the Government and other stakeholders will have to make significant investment in TVET, especially by upgrading and equipping TVET centres, and improving the quality of vocational and technical teachers. Only then shall we build a critical mass of skilled population who will deliver this country’s aspirations.
The writer is a training editor with The New Times and 1st VP of Rwanda Journalists Association